How is it that a theatrical set piled with snow and filled with bundled-up actors can seem so cozy — when out in the real world you’ve just brawled through traffic in a cursed snow squall? I guess that’s the enchantment of theater. Situations that might sting in real life are allowed to mellow and mutate into poignant moments.
New York playwright John Cariani throws a little magical realism on nine bittersweet love scenes in his work, “Almost, Maine,” a sentimental, quirky and ultimately likable entertainment. The play opened Friday at Old Log Theater in Excelsior, with R. Kent Knutson directing.
Cariani has set the work in a mythical town in the far north of Maine, where the flat land of potato fields meets the great forest. It is a place that can conjure imagination and wonder — think of the far northwestern quarter of Minnesota.
Carolyn Pool plays a woman who has pitched a tent on a man’s yard, where she plans to watch the northern lights. She carries her broken heart in a bag and only reluctantly allows the property owner, played by Greg Eiden, to put it back together.
Paul De Cordova and Ian Zahren play a couple of beer-drinking buddies who find themselves falling (literally) in love with each other.
Pool portrays a woman who has traveled a great distance to make things right with an old flame, Peter Simmons, but discovers that time does not stand still.
Actor Brian Pekol knits these moments together with guitar interludes as small set pieces shuttle across Eric Paulson’s bucolic winter landscape. Costumer Jan Battle leans on snowmobile suits and big floppy hats — a wardrobe out of “Northern Exposure” — but she nicely articulates the social and class differences of character with a dash of actual fashion now and then.
Knutson keeps the production on an amiable pace, although on occasion he opts for the sugar of cuteness rather than the vinegar of pain. On opening night, some of his actors were a little jumpy, eager to please, and hadn’t settled into the play’s rhythm. There’s no need to push this material too hard.
De Cordova has the most natural ease among the actors. He finds the subtle intersection of disappointment and optimism as a guy who, in a trice, is jilted and then re-energized by new possibilities. Pool plays well the lost-girl characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves — for better or worse.
All the elements that Knutson brings together keep this production from lapsing into a mere acting exercise of scenes around a theme but with little cohesion. He and the cast have a good understanding of Cariani’s work and in the process they do indeed create a feeling of place — one with warm charm amid the cold.
Now if my car will only start.