The creative team of “Almost, Maine” includes, from left, Samantha Rosentrater, John Cariani, director Sally Wood, Kathy McCafferty and Raymond McAnally. Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

It’s always a good time for love. But especially now, says Sally Wood, who directs “Almost, Maine,” opening this week at Portland Stage.

The play, written by Mainer and Tony-nominated Broadway actor John Cariani, has a celebrated history with the theater. It debuted at Portland Stage in 2004, becoming the most popular play in the theater’s history and one of the most-produced plays in American theater. Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart brought it back for Maine’s bicentennial year, with Cariani in a starring role as an actor.

Cariani, who was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Presque Isle, wrote “Almost, Maine” to celebrate the common lives of common people, and particularly common people who live rurally. It’s a fictional play set in a fictional town, but it’s about the people he grew up with and places like Presque Isle.

Wood thinks it’s a perfect play for our times because its central message is one of love and empathy. Our world needs more of both, she said.

“There is a gentleness to this play, I think,” she said. “There is a respect for a class of people that sometimes doesn’t get a whole lot of respect or thought. That’s what I love about this play. It’s about people who are just trying to get by, for whom there appears nothing significant about their lives. They are not the governor of the state or something like that, but there is magic within them. I love that. It makes makes me feel that my life has the capacity for magic, too.”

The play is told in a series of eight vignettes, each dedicated to a couple in various stages of falling in and out of love on a cold, starry night in a faraway place. The characters are full of wonder, hope and desire, and are trusting and vulnerable. They refuse to live with cynical hearts. It’s a love story, even if Cariani’s story doesn’t always end happily. “Everybody is dealing with life, love and death,” Cariani has said about his play. “That’s why I wrote ‘Almost, Maine.'”

In an interview last fall after Portland Stage announced the revival, Cariani told the Press Herald, “I want Mainers to know that ‘Almost, Maine’ is not just a good play for Maine. It’s a good play for all. The stories about rural people and their hardscrabble lives are always told as if they are in the past. Hardscrabble lives exist in the present, and we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them in American art and culture,” he said. “But just because your life is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent sad. There is a lot of hope in hard lives, and that’s what we need to remind people who are sad and trying to be happy.”

Since its debut in Portland in 2004, the play has been staged across America and across the world, with more than 4,000 productions. It’s been especially popular with high school drama departments and community theaters, because of its hopeful message and because it’s a relatively simple play to produce with opportunities for many actors. Most professional theater companies produce the play with four actors, but it can be produced with as many as 20. And there’s no foul language in the play.

Despite the play’s popularity, it has had trouble with some big-city critics, which Cariani attributes to the jaded nature of people who live in cities. They sometimes find the play off-putting because of the lack of cynicism in the characters, he thinks.

A review in the New York Times of an off-Broadway revival in 2014, which included Cariani in the cast, seems to reflect the dismissive attitude that Cariani is talking about. With faint praise, the reviewer called the play “a higher-concept and more clever version” of movies like “Love Actually” that never transcends the romantic-comedy genre “and its core audience.” The reviewer praised Cariani’s writing as “so earnest and thoughtful … that’s it’s hard not to let the cheese slide.”

John Cariani shows the way to true north to the rest of the cast of “Almost, Maine”: Raymond McAnally, Kathy McCafferty and Samantha Rosentrater. Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage Company

In addition to Cariani, the Portland Stage version includes Raymond McAnally, Kathy McCafferty and Samantha Rosentrater. Other than McAnally, they’ve all acted in the show before. After committing to act in “Almost, Maine,” Cariani was cast in the Broadway revival of “Caroline, or Change,” which begins rehearsals in early February. Because of that, Portland actor Dustin Tucker will cover for Cariani for the performances on Feb. 5, 6 and 7.

Tucker, who lives in town, has been attending rehearsals and running lines with the cast. “We’ve made clear, Dustin is not understudying John,” Wood said. “He is replacing John. I want him to have his own take on this as well. Dustin is so good. He’s going to be so much fun, and it will be a different show when Dustin is a part of it.”

In Maine, Cariani is best known for the plays he has written. Elsewhere, he is known for his acting and, lately, his singing. He received a Tony Award nomination for his performance in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2004, and more recently starred in “The Band’s Visit” and “Something Rotten!”

Wood has directed two other plays by Cariani, “Last Gas” and “Love Sick,” both at Portland Stage. When she signed on as director for “Almost, Maine,” Wood was excited. For a brief moment, that excitement turned to anxiety when she considered the pressure of expectation that comes with a play like “Almost, Maine.”

“Just don’t screw it up,” she said to herself.

As rehearsals began, she realized that wasn’t likely. This play is as popular as it is, the director said, because it holds up well.

“I trust the story,” Wood said. “John wrote a beautiful story.”


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