Monday, November 17, 2014

Almost, Maine—Community College Production Surprises

Note:  Only a sliver of my readers here at the little pop stand at the far end of the cul-de-sac are now local to McHenry County so I have cut back on articles about local events and issues.  But sometimes I am inspired and sometimes I just want to hype some event to which I have some personal connection.  That’s not the case with this entry.  Those of you who are not local can still enjoy it, I hope, as arts commentary.
Note to the Theater Department of McHenry County College—Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.  I know that your nice, shiny, brand new version of the Black Box Theater still only seats an intimate 65 or so and you can keep the seats filled over a three week-end, nine performance run with students, faculty, and family and friends of you talented young cast, but the general public should get a crack at production of the quality of Almost, Maine.  As it is, it ain’t easy to find you.  You failed to get listed in the Northwest Herald’s PlantIt 10 Things to Do in McHenry County which did manage to list three, count them, three, High School productions this week.  Heck, you didn’t even make the agate print Calendar Listings.
My wife Kathy only discovered your show when she literally stumbled on it while visiting the MCC website.  Since we enjoy live theater and the price was right—a bargain $15 for the general public and we even got what she called the extreme adult discount price of $10.  I’m glad she did because it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evenings of local theater we have enjoyed in a while.
For me, it was like buying a pig in a poke.  I had heard rumors, of course, that Jay Geller was running a surprisingly fine Theater Department at the sprawling college on Rt. 14 but had never checked it out.  And I knew absolutely nothing about Jon Carlani’s little collection of wistful scenes for an ensemble cast.  Chalk that up to embarrassing cultural ignorance on my part.  Apparently, according to the playbill, Almost, Maine opened off Broadway in 2006, was selected for the book New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2006, and in the few short years since has become the most frequently produced play in the U.S of A with more than 2,000 productions.

Amanda Lewis and Nathaniel Miller bookend the show.

And it is easy to see why.  The script is charming with an original take on fragile, sometimes fractured romance with quirky characters each somehow damaged but sympathetic, sharply observed humor with an undercurrent of pain.  The show can be produced on a shoestring budget with a minimalist set and thrift store costumes.  The vignette scenes and ensemble cast allow for plenty of meaty, if brief, parts to go around equally mixed for men and women.
But it is also easy to see how, in less skilled hands than lent to this production, the show could be treacly sweet on one hand or over broad like a series of Saturday Night Live sketches on the other.  Acting lacking subtlety could turn surprisingly complex characters into cartoons, poor timing—the easiest thing to get wrong in comedy—would be fatal.  An inexpensive production could look merely cheap and the set either merely cramped or confused.
Geller has guided his young cast deftly through the minefields.  The eleven member cast is so uniformly fine in establishing their quirky, but recognizable, characters and evoking the chemistry—or lack there off—between them that it would be unfair to pick any out for special praise and too cumbersome to extol the virtues of each individual performance.  And that is perfect—and rare—for ensemble work.
The New Black Box space takes advantage of a surprisingly spacious stage to avoid potential claustrophobia and establish clearly defined settings for the action, which is supposed to be spread across a remote Maine village in the far north of the state at the same hour of a frigid Friday night.  We get the feeling of a bypassed backwater and the people left behind there in a world circumscribed by humdrum jobs at the paper mill, a humdrum tavern, yet blessed by a limitless sky which may even display a dazzling aurora borealis display.
Parker Stillwell and Olivia Jensen share awkward moment.

Yep, folks out here deserve a chance to see a delicate little gem of show like this as a tonic yet another production of an overly familiar, long in the tooth musical or a frantic farce that are the meat and potatoes of most local theater companies and student production.  But ya gotta tell folks about it.
It’s not too late.  A final three performances are scheduled this Thursday through Saturday nights at 7 pm.

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