(April 1, 2008)

Finding Truth, in This “Maine”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

In New York, we sometimes blame odd behavior on the full moon.

In Northern Maine, it's The Northern Lights.

How else to explain why - at the stroke of 9 on a Friday night like none you've ever encountered - people just haul off and kiss other people without asking permission?

Welcome to "Almost, Maine" at Hudson Stage Company, John Cariani's delightful play about regular people in the irregular act of falling in and out of love.

Directed with a feather-light touch by Dan Foster, "Almost, Maine" runs the next two weekends - in a wide-eyed, funny and touching production - at Woodward Hall on the Briarcliff Manor campus of Pace University.

Foster, a Hudson Stage co-founder (with producers Olivia Sklar and Denise Bessette), has been delighting audiences for years.

"Almost, Maine" joins last year's stellar "Murderers" and "The Retreat from Moscow" on a growing list of exceptional theater that puts a premium on first-rate writing, top-shelf production values and acting at the highest levels.

Foster's skill as a director begins with his casting: Four actors - Daniel Robert Sullivan, Kathy McCafferty, Will Brunson and Brenda Withers -bring the unorganized territory of "Almost, Maine" to life in 11 short scenes.

Sometimes a small cast playing several characters can be a tough sell - we identify with one actor as one of the characters and breaking that association is difficult - but for some reason that's not the case here. Each actor glides smoothly into the next person, leaving only a happy ripple of their previous role.

It helps that, as the night goes on, Cariani refers to people we've met already. It makes it feel like we've been somewhere and met the whole town.

Daniel Robert Sullivan, who plays Pete, Lendall, Chad and Dave, might remind you of the actor Steve Zahn. Sullivan's characters have a gleam in their eye and an ever-present smile.

In the Prologue, Interlogue and Epilogue - three tiny moments that just shine - Sullivan is able to find the truth in a man who's logic may not be entirely sound, but whose impact in undeniable.

Foster and his brave cast don't fear silence. They make the most of it.

Kathy McCafferty plays Ginette, Sandrine, Marvalyn and a Woman, giving each character an earnestness that is palpable. As Ginette to Sullivan's Pete, she is a bundle of emotions: love, lust, confusion and resolve. Each color plays across her face in the silences - with very little dialogue. She's a revelation in these tiniest of moments.

Will Brunson plays East, Steve, Randy, Phil and a Man. There's a matter-of-factness to his portrayals, a sensible nature. In the scene "The Story of Hope" in Act 2, his "Man" is straightforward and solid, not offering much but taking it all in. It's an exercise in observation and Brunson nails it.

Brenda Withers plays Glory, Waitress, Gayle, Marci and Rhonda, finding the heart of each. As Glory, she's searching; as the waitress, she's finding; as Gayle, she's unrelenting; as Marci, she's losing and as Rhonda, she's learning.

What it comes down to is truth. These are not high-falutin' people, but in these short scenes, we glimpse ourselves.

There's an economy to Cariani's dialogue that is too lifelike not to have been crafted and painstakingly perfected. Lines overlap and people stop and start midthought. It takes talent to write lines that seem so effortless and just as much talent to deliver them in a way that makes them ring true.

The air in Woodward Hall is electric, charged by actors who seem lit from within. Still, in all their incarnations, they never lets us catch them acting. They have a command for the material that breathes life into these ordinary people.

Joanne Haas' costumes are another character in the action and add tremendously to the overall effect. Each actor wears a half-dozen pairs of boots - from duckboots to steel-toes to snowmobiles to knee-high fashionista numbers worn by a character who's obviously not from these parts. The many layers are spot-on but manage to avoid being cartoonish and silly.

Andrew Gmoser's lights, too, add much. The Northern Lights effect acts as a touchstone, a timekeeper and the use of a spotlight puts a comic exclamation point on one particular scene.

Foster has said that Hudson Stage's mission is to give good writing a home.

Welcome home.

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