One Up on Shakespeare

By Roger M. Williams ’56

Michael Chernicoff ’09 in a scene from Almost, Maine, as performed at Amherst in 2009

[Theater] What’s the most frequently performed theatrical production in American high schools? Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? The Pajama Game? Something by the Bard? In 2010, none of the above. It was Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. Never heard of it? You haven’t been to enough high school productions lately. That year, Almost, Maine edged out A Midsummer Night’s Dream, You Can’t Take It With You and all manner of other theatrical warhorses.

Cariani, a versatile man of the dramatic arts, is a noted theatrical and television actor as well as the author of that amazingly successful collection of tender, whimsical sketches. Referring to the play’s perch atop the high school charts, he seems as astonished as everyone else, declaring, “Isn’t that weird? It’s just weird!”

His own path to theatrical eminence was, if not weird, certainly winding, and wholly unpredictable. As a student in Presque Isle, in northern Maine, he gravitated to music, not theater. At Amherst, while majoring in history, he preferred singing—with the Zumbyes and Glee Club—to either playwriting or acting. “I did have a classmate and friend, Wendy Stetson, who became a successful Broadway actor, and I enjoyed watching what she did onstage.” At Amherst, he did no acting himself.

Nonetheless, acting proved to be Cariani’s entrée to professional theater. Applying for internships at numerous American theaters, he landed one in familiar territory—Springfield, Mass. Moving on to New York City, he got his first break with a bit part in a movie starring Christopher Walken. Something like stardom arrived soon thereafter: the ongoing role of a forensic technician in the eternally running TV series Law & Order. Then he became Motel, the tailor, in a Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof—a role that brought him a Tony nomination. He remains a dedicated working actor.

Set in a fictional Maine town under a sky ablaze with northern lights, Almost, Maine is a series of interrelated short plays about the perils of falling in and out of love. It’s been hailed as “a woolly midwinter night’s dream,” full of “hope and heartbreak and human foibles in pursuit of love.” Cariani began writing the piece in 1995, reworking it, he says, after realizing that “I had a collection of great love stories, but I hadn’t fully examined forbidden love or love that doesn’t last.” (Could those elements be creating the huge appeal to high school students?) It was nine years before he landed a full production—down the coast from Presque Isle, in Portland. At that point, Almost, Maine had been winnowed from some two dozen segments to eight, plus a prologue and an epilogue, with 19 characters.

The Portland production, in 2004, achieved both critical and financial success. Yet an ensuing Off-Broadway run was a disappointment at best. Almost, Maine ran there for only a month in early 2006, losing, according to The
New York Times, its entire capitalization of $800,000.

Cariani concedes that “many New Yorkers  found the play too sweet or hopeful,” but he has clearly had the last smile. Almost, Maine, he says, has received more than 70 professional productions and well over 700 community theater, high school and college productions. (Amherst students brought it to Kirby Theater in 2009.) “It’s been staged in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Dubai [and] Mexico City and has been translated into Korean, Spanish, Dutch and, most recently, Turkish.” The schedule for 2012 and beyond indicates no slowdown.

Since Almost, Maine, Cariani has written Last Gas, again set in northern Maine and again dealing with the multiple, if not infinite, facets of love. Last Gas premiered in 2010 in Portland, where it broke box office records. It then became a Bangor, Maine, theater’s first production of the 2011–12 season. Coming next to that theater in Bangor: a workshop production of Cariani’s latest play, Love/Sick. Today Maine, tomorrow the world.

Photo by Samuel Masinter ’04