Acting Students Bring Nuance and Range to 'Almost, Maine'
The play charts the emotional ups and downs of love in its many forms
For one weekend in March, the Northern Lights, 12-degree temperatures and wrenching emotional climaxes overtook an intimate theater space at 466 Townsend. From March 17–19, the room hosted the School of Acting graduate performance of the John Cariani play Almost, Maine, directed by Lena Hart.
In the course of eight scenes—plus a prologue, interlogue and epilogue—the play introduces 20 characters who wrestle with the emotional fallout of declaring, accepting, renouncing and mourning love in its many forms. Euphoria and turmoil ensue in tiny Almost, Maine, an unincorporated town that just barely exists.
“It’s such a well-written play, and I was hoping we’d do it justice,” said Hart.
Her modest goal returned extraordinary results. The characters, in the hands of six gifted acting students, were searingly human. Cast members Amanda Casarella, Valerie Compton, Anna Krieg, Alkuat Tulemetov and Yih Ren, all from the graduate program, were joined by second-year undergraduate Zaya Kolia.
A succession of relationship scenarios played out onstage: a shy new couple profess, bungle and, finally, reciprocate their love; a widow camps out in a stranger’s yard to pay tribute to her late husband beneath the Aurora Borealis.
Female friends bonding over bad dates contemplate a relationship beyond the platonic, and a woman returns to answer her high school boyfriend’s marriage proposal, years too late.
The material showcased the actors’ nuance and range—not only in dramatic situations, but also in comedic ones. In one scene, a fledgling couple readies for their first physical encounter by peeling off layer after layer after layer of cold-weather gear.
“Plays I enjoy the most have a range of comedy and drama,” said Hart. “In terms of physical comedy, we tried to play it really straight. For the emotional parts that were sad, it’s the same thing. You have to play it real.”
Hart empowered and encouraged the actors to guide their own character development choices. In other cases, she strategically exercised her directorial authority. For example, Hart opted for a thrust stage to maximize visibility.
The layout also served to prepare the cast to perform with the audience close by, sometimes within arm’s reach. “The actors could really practice freeing themselves, even with someone in their space. One of the major things they were working on was staying focused on their scene partner,” Hart said.
Which isn’t to label the audience irrelevant. “The last actor to come into the play is the audience. It’s a completely different actor on stage with you every night,” Hart said. Typically, an opening night crowd is supportive and welcoming, full of friends and loved ones. Saturday night spectators tend to be more serious and critical, while a Sunday matinee audience can be tough to characterize.
Whatever the energy, the cast feels it. “My favorite moment was just before the lights came up on Friday’s performance,” said Compton, who played four roles in the show. “There was so much energy, and everything was completely open to new possibilities.”
Embracing possibility is one appropriate theme for Almost, Maine. It’s one that also applies to theater performance, a world in which the unexpected inevitably will occur. The cast and crew dealt with a technical hiccup on Sunday afternoon, when five of the blue lights used for the outdoor scenes burned out. Actors responded by adjusting their blocking to make sure they could be seen. They also changed their speaking volume and pronunciation to counteract a quirk of live theater. If the audience can’t see the performers, they have trouble hearing them, Hart explained.
All told, the actors proved their ability to prepare, adapt and connect—with their fellow actors, with the audience and with themselves.
“I picked these roles because they would personally challenge their individual habits,” Hart said. “Every single one of them did amazing at focusing in on that. It was a process for everyone, and I think they all knocked it out of the park.”