Through March 3, TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org
Tender, funny, and magical, this new play has emerged as one of the most-produced contemporary scripts around the country, and for good reason. A crowd-pleaser without being predictable or saccharine, it's a linked series of two-person love stories, featuring quirky individuals living way out in the middle of nowhere, in Almost, Maine. It's a place that never got around to incorporating as a township and can't be found on any map, but where the northern lights sometimes make magic overhead.
Some of the stories are about the beginnings of love between two people, some about the end. All are poignant or funny or both. What I like best about the script is how it makes actions literal and physical that we usually think of metaphorically. To give examples would be to spoil the surprise. It's also warmhearted, and demonstrates the lovability of several characters who are inept enough at reading social cues that they could be on the autism spectrum. And playwright John Cariani has written one of the best love scenes for two young men yet — utterly credible, utterly theatrical, full of promise and hurdles.
All 19 roles in Almost, Maine are carried by four young actors, recent graduates of some of the best acting training programs in the country. Director Amy Saltz has taught in many of these programs and has helped shape performances that are committed and fervent without being over the top.
Jess Watkins is memorable in multiple roles that demand differing qualities; she can be abrasive or sympathetic or in charge or wounded, just to name a few. Lucas Hall makes laconic into an expressive mode, and is fearless, physically. Laura Esposito does yearning and regret in varying shades. Eric Bryant is impulsive and long-suffering and charmingly persistent, by turns. It's a balanced ensemble working with heart and skill.
Some of the fun for the audience comes in the wicked winter setting, which has the characters all bundled up in ways that vary by character, thanks to Harry Nadal's costumes. In one of the funniest sequences of the night, a new couple frantically strip down to long underwear through more layers than you'd think possible. Lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger has a tough challenge with this show but manages to create surprise; she suggests the grandeur of the night sky and the wondrous canopy of the northern lights in TheaterWorks small, low space.
This show is sometimes compared to Our Town, in that both encourage us to see the sacred embedded within our everyday lives. Here, the sense of community is less present, and the short-form storylines don't provide the heroic arc we know from the 1938 classic. But Almost, Maine in both those ways is much more a play of our times: individual lives intersect unpredictably within a loose collective, where all we can witness are moments rather than any sense of a grand design — but where, occasionally and without warning, the solar system itself provides an overarching aura of flickering awe to match our inner transports.