A man standing and smiling in a brightly lit outdoor stone hallway

Now it holds such brilliance in my memory: a sold-out theater, everyone laughing, no masks hiding the smiles, all these gales of gladness gusting between the actors and their audience. I suppose we felt giddy before we even arrived. There’d been a huge ice storm and outside the trees had been abracadabra’d into glass, the whole world in spangles under the streetlamps. Timing matters here: It was the second Sunday in February, a month before the country buckled under the pandemic. We were so merry, so unaware of the grief, anger and uncertainty to come, the fire after the ice.

The theater was Maine’s Portland Stage. And the play was Almost, Maine, written by John Cariani ’91, who is also a Tony-nominated actor: he has co-starred in Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof, Something Rotten and The Band’s Visit. If you’ve raised a high schooler over the past decade, you’ve likely heard of Almost, Maine. In 2017–18, it was the most produced play in North American high schools, knocking A Midsummer Night’s Dream out of the top spot. It has thrived at regional theaters as well, with 6,000 productions since its 2004 premiere. The show has been performed, in translation, in some 20 countries, from South Korea to Brazil to the United Arab Emirates. The play’s imagery needs no translation, though: a couple on a bench, in winter, gazing up at the pines and the stars.

Maine is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and this revival was supposed to help jumpstart things, with the added luster of the playwright starring in his own work. Since it was pre-COVID, it became one of the few bicentennial events to actually take place in person. The show’s a good choice to shoulder that distinction, though. Because Almost, Maine says so much about this corner of the country and about rural life in general, when such stories have become rare in the theater world.

Strung together as nine short plays—romantic, funny, poignant, with generous helpings of magical realism—it’s set in the fictional town of Almost. It’s TV’s Northern Exposure meets Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (if the suite were a snowfield) meets a Gabriel García Márquez novel meets Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which features the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

The action takes place, to quote my program, “on a cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night in the middle of the deepest part of a Northern Maine winter.” There are 19 roles in all, but on this night four actors took them on. Various couples find they are smitten or not, with witty physical comedy along the way. When two men suddenly find they’ve fallen in love, for instance, they literally fall onto the stage. Repeatedly.

I marked in my notebook whenever the audience erupted, and you can see when I was laughing too hard to make my scrawls legible. Like when one character, a chipper bartender, announces the night’s liquor promotion: “Free drinks if you’re sad!” Or when another deadpans, “I’m heading south for the winter.” Pause. “To Vermont.” Or when two snowmobilers realize their feelings have pushed past friendship. This leads to a striptease, which is comically protracted in a place where one must dress in layers. Cariani and fellow actor Samantha Rosentrater laboriously fling gloves, hats, snow boots, down jackets, down overalls, sweaters, fleece vests and flannel shirts, all the way, finally, to their long underwear.

Granted, there’s a you-had-to-be-there quality to describing comedy. And Almost, Maine got almost mean reviews in Manhattan. Success came later, and elsewhere. As Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage, wrote in the program: “After being spurned by a cynical New York, Almost, Maine blossomed away from the big cities.” Indeed. There in our seats, just in from the ice storm, with our own bulky winter wear bunched behind us, the play charmed and validated.

Not just me, someone who has lived in New England for decades and has had a bear lope through her yard often enough, but the real Mainers I quizzed at intermission. One loved the characters’ gripes about how far you have to drive to get to a store, a school, a hospital. “Everything in Maine is 45 minutes away,” he explained ruefully. Mary Bonney, one of Cariani’s best high school friends, was there with her husband and young sons. The boys grinned and said their favorite part was watching those guys pratfall onstage. Said their mom: “Every time I’ve seen this play, it’s like going home.”

A man in a short-sleeved shirt with his hands in his pocket

Cariani lives in the Bronx (where this photo was taken) but northern Maine remains his inspiration.

William Inge, the playwright behind Picnic and Bus Stop, wrote about lives infused by the power of place, in his case small-town Kansas. August Wilson composed a 10-play cycle grounded in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. John Cariani, through Almost, Maine and its bleaker counterpart, Last Gas, pulls his inspiration from Aroostook County, which Mainers call “the County” and is some 300 miles north of Portland, near the New Brunswick border. This is Maine potato country. School used to recess until the harvest was over; Cariani’s husband, retired New York City police detective John Lloyd, grew up on a local potato farm. In area, Aroostook is America’s largest county east of the Mississippi, bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. So big that large swaths of land have numbers rather than names. One character in Last Gas lives in Township 15, Range 8.

Cariani grew up in Presque Isle, Aroostook’s biggest town, population 9,000. The Carianis moved there from Massachusetts when John was 8; his dad took a job in the treasurer’s office at the Maine Public Service Co. Because John was raised but not born in-state, his friends conceded he was “almost a Mainer.” Thus the play’s name.

We chatted for a long time after the curtain fell at Portland Stage, about home and family; about his career on stage and screen (he’s acted alongside Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Ed Asner); about how, when he’s at the grocery store in the Bronx, where he and Lloyd now live, he always checks if any produce is from Aroostook. I asked him his first impression of the county as a little boy: “I loved all the open space. And the drive! From Bangor onward, you cannot see any cars, and it’s like being in a tunnel of trees, a forest. And then you emerge in Houlton and you’re in the foreign country of Northern Maine.”

In high school, Cariani played clarinet in the jazz band—which came in handy in 2020, when his character in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Caroline, or Change, plays clarinet too. (The show, due to open in spring 2020, was caught in the Broadway shutdown.) When most classmates sign your yearbook, they recount memories or tell you, Don’t ever change, but Cariani wrote tiny one-acts: “I basically recreated conversations with friends that I’d had in high school. Rather than doing long descriptive stuff, I chose dialogue. That led me to writing how people talk in this place. But I didn’t know what a playwright even was then, really.”

At Amherst, he became a history major and took two semesters of calculus and some courses in Japanese language. He had a big perfectionism problem for a while, until a visiting professor kindly told him that was no way to live: “Before that, I would pass in all my papers late,” Cariani says. “I would hold on to them and hold on to them, try to perfect them. I don’t see what’s the point of sharing something when you don’t think it’s any good. That’s followed me in this career. Some people read their stuff to each other in workshops, and it makes me get flop sweat thinking of that situation.”

He also felt there were gaps in his knowledge: “I went to college at a time where everything we studied was micro. I had to run to the encyclopedia all the time, because I did not know the context.” His junior year, his brother was in a near-fatal car accident, and Cariani wasn’t sure how to help his parents. “They said, ‘You need to stay in school for us.’” He put his head down, leaned on his close friendships, and found joy watching his friends perform, especially in Mr. Gad’s House of Improv. That year Cariani became director of the Zumbyes. His perfectionism may have helped in this case, as I learned from Wendy Rich Stetson ’91, an actor who starred in the very first production of Almost, Maine, and who has been good friends with Cariani since they were first-years in Stearns. She said, “We’d sit and analyze each Zumbyes show after it was done, going over every moment, how that solo worked, that song, that skit. He still has that same interest and attention in every moment he’s creating.”

Stetson and Cariani also took a playwriting class together. “John’s sensibility was, even then, very clear,” she recalls. “He wrote about a small town in Maine full of well-meaning people. It showed that particular combo of heart and humor he has, slightly off-center. Everyone realized, in class, that he was a writer.”

But after college, he thought about being a teacher, applied for a corporate job in human resources and took a cross-country trip with classmates, forming a quasi-band that never got any gigs. He eventually landed an internship at StageWest, a regional theater in Springfield, Mass. For three years, Cariani went all-in, acted in children’s shows, understudied, tended bar at the theater, scrubbed the toilets. If he was going to make it, though, New York was it. He took a bunch of jobs in the city, like working in billing departments, to survive while he went on auditions.

His big break came when he joined the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Parts started to follow in commercials, theater, film, TV. Come the millennium, NBC was looking for new comic writers as their flagship series Seinfeld and Friends wound down. Someone from the network had seen Cariani and his friends perform sketches and monologues and brought them into the studio as a sort of farm system for ideas, showcasing their stuff for higher-ups four nights a week. Director Gabriel Barre stopped by for one of these evenings and caught Cariani’s loosely formed love stories set in northern Maine. Barre told Cariani: “I think you have a play here.”

From then on, Cariani kept working on the material as he took other jobs. I’m focusing on Almost, Maine in this article, but Cariani has written three other plays, not all set in Maine, which have run off-Broadway. They include cul-de-sac, which The New York Times called “charming, witty and macabre.”

He never became a comedy writer at NBC, and the farm system sputtered, but he did start getting TV roles, including a five-year run as forensic tech Julian Beck on Law & Order. If you check out his IMDb bio, you’ll see scores of parts, including on The Good Wife and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

What’s he like as an actor? I asked Wendy Rich Stetson. “He has that rare combination of total guilelessness and intelligence, with his killer sense of timing and humor. He is a unique soul.” Go to YouTube and watch him magnificently sing “I Suck,” cut from Something Rotten, and you’ll laugh and agree with Stetson.

In 2004 he won a Tony nomination for playing Motel the tailor in the Fiddler on the Roof revival with Alfred Molina as Tevye. After Cariani did one of his scenes, the older actor came up him. “He said, ‘You’re a funny guy, and you are getting many laughs, but you’ve got to remember the story is bigger than you,’” recalls Cariani. “I was being selfish. I was being a ham.” This idea of honoring the story pervades Cariani’s work today. “Theater is heard once and seen once,” he says. “People do not go multiple times, unless you’re a huge fan and/or you’re rich. Therefore, theater has to be very simple. Formulas are important. Formulaic is not a dirty word to me.”

Actors on a stage in a living room
Cariani, second from left, in The Band’s Visit on Broadway in 2017, with castmates (from left) Kristen Sieh, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk and George Abud. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Last spring Cariani’s agent had the idea that he do Zoom chats with high school drama teachers and their students, all across the country, who had staged Almost, Maine (or were about to stage it when COVID hit). He’s logged more than 100 sessions so far.

I got in touch with one of those teachers, Valerie von Rosenvinge, drama director of Hopkinton (Mass.) High School. She explained why the show is perfect for this age group, in practical and emotional terms: “The thing that’s incredibly appealing is that you can take about 20 kids. And it’s almost like you could teach a masterclass on acting using the play, because each person has one character with just one or two people in their scenes. And each of those 20 students can have a genuine moment on stage that is focused solely on them. I look at Almost, Maine as an educational piece. It provides an opportunity to develop talent, confidence and awareness that not a whole lot of other pieces do. And when you pull back the layers, you appreciate the brilliance of what this play can be.”

Musicals get most of the love in high school theater. They make more money, and you can cast virtually everyone who auditions (that’s the beauty of the chorus). With straight plays, there are either too few roles or the text is too complicated or inappropriate. Yes, the Shakespeare comedies can work, and von Rosenvinge cited Harvey, You Can’t Take It with You and Spoon River Anthology. Yet not a one is modern.

She concedes that productions of Almost, Maine can founder if actors accentuate its sweetness without mining deeper. Take the scene where a seemingly together woman and seemingly odd man interact at a laundromat. Von Rosenvinge talked about the Hopkinton student who played the woman: “Her original understanding was that the woman was just doing the laundry, dealing with this guy who was kind of pitiful, and she tries to reach out and be kind to him. And she feels better by virtue of doing that. And then, as we began to do the work, she began to uncover that this woman was just as damaged as he was. That kind of epiphany started to happen with many of the kids.”

Mid-March is when most northeast high schools put on a show—and so the COVID-related cancellations cascaded just before those opening nights, including in Hopkinton. “It was wrenching for the kids,” says von Rosenvinge. A few months later, at the Zoom session with the cast, Cariani spoke at length to each teen about how they played their parts.

“It was one of the best, most touching things that’s happened since COVID,” says von Rosenvinge. “During this time, when we have laid witness to people’s unkindness and intolerance, this man stepped out of the bubble of fame and fortune and made these kids feel like they had something to offer to him. What a gift.”

Two actors on a dark stage sitting on a bench
Cariani and Kathy McCafferty in the Portland Stage production of Almost, Maine. The play is now a YA novel and may become a TV series. Photo by Mical Hutson/Portland Stage

“Theater is not relevant now, and that's OK,” Cariani told me in June, via the inevitable Zoom, noting that he was writing a lot in the interim. Meanwhile, Almost, Maine continues to broaden its impact. Cariani has reworked the play into a young-adult novel, which Macmillan published in March. And he is now in discussions about converting Almost, Maine into a Broadway musical, and maybe even a TV series.

I imagined this high demand felt like vindication. To quote a 2010 New York Times headline: “New York Flop Becomes a Hit Everywhere Else.” Cariani is thrilled by this wide reception, but he also knows that rural subjects still get short shrift in the theater world, and it really bothers him. He said so in an essay for Transport Group, an off-Broadway theater company. “[C]ontemporary rural America—and rural Americans in particular—aren’t really present in contemporary American drama,” he wrote. “Foreign rural dwellers are: The Ferryman and The Band’s Visit have charmed and thrilled New York audiences over the past couple of seasons. Where are the contemporary rural Americans, written by contemporary American writers? Where is our 21st century William Inge?”

If you look at theater decades back, there are plenty of highly popular shows based in rural communities. Think of Our Town, which once also reigned in high school productions. It is often written off as saccharine, but Wendy Rich Stetson counters wonderfully: “Today, people look at Our Town as a box of kittens. But there is a hard reality in that show.”

As for movies and TV, adds Cariani, with the exception of Friday Night Lights, rural representation mostly focuses on the stark, even the grisly. In multiple shows, crimes are committed in the backcountry and only the urban savior detectives can crack the case. Townsfolk are patronized, caricatured. But they are taken seriously in Inge’s 1953 play Picnic, which unfolds at a Labor Day celebration in that era. Cariani—who appeared in that show for the Transport Group, playing Howard, a local shopkeeper—is struck by Inge’s deep empathy for his characters.

I asked what was one of his more memorable lines in Picnic. Right away, he recited: “It’s a good business town. A young man can go far.” Then he said: “That is not something that you would say in a small town in America right now. When I grew up in Presque Isle, it was the end of a very prosperous era. The Air Force base closed. And then Idaho started to beat us out with the potatoes: Idaho started irrigating, marketing aggressively. And Maine potatoes weren’t branded, so there was this idea that Idaho russet potatoes are the most delicious.”

This led him to talk about how rural areas have lost population, especially young people. (Presque Isle has about 20 percent fewer people since Cariani himself left.) Has population loss led to loss of representation, too? Whatever the cause, Cariani is impassioned about the adverse effect of invisibility, both universally and personally. “Theater is an urban art form. That is a fact. You need bodies to attend plays. You don’t have enough bodies in rural areas. There are very few rural theater companies. Theater is the medium that I first was drawn to. I understand it’s not the medium for the story I want to tell—yet it’s the medium I love.”

Two actors in Shakespearean dress singing
Cariani and Kate Reinders in Broadway’s Something Rotten in 2015. He played a playwright, appropriately, one who competes with Shakespeare. © Joan Marcus

On our Zoom call, Cariani said (albeit with a smile) that he was annoyed with me. I’d made the mistake of making a last-minute request to this deliberate man. It seemed harmless: I had asked if, when we met virtually, he could show me one object from his apartment that held meaning for him. I should have known that someone who thinks long and hard, deeply takes his time and is a perfectionist would find this oppressive. But he said his annoyance gave way to pleasure as he looked around the place.

It turned out he couldn’t possibly confine himself to one object. And so I sat back as he paraded a delightful series of illustrations by different artists, some framed, some from his impressive stash of stationery. Almost all of them featured Matisse-like rural scenes, and they were beautifully quiet and simple, variations on that bench under the pines from Almost, Maine. There was a silhouette of one man with a guitar, walking across a vast field of snow. There was a sketch of a window, outdoors, with the rest of the house removed.

And then he showed me an image of a lone ladder, upright, leaning on nothing you could see, pointed toward a brilliant star.

Katharine Whittemore is Amherst magazine’s senior writer. She profiled Kate (Westerbeck) Lewis ’94 in the Spring 2020 issue.

Photos by Beth Perkins