It’s the simplicity of “Almost, Maine” that makes it so appealing to high schools, playwright John Cariani said of his most well-known work.
This spring, the play is being performed in six Maine high schools, including Hermon High, Brewer High and Mount Desert Island High. All three schools are performing the show this week.
The play is set in the fictional unorganized territory nicknamed Almost, Maine, “a town that’s so far north, it’s almost not in the United States — it’s almost in Canada. And it almost doesn’t exist,” according to the play’s website. The romantic comedy with dramatic moments follows characters in nine different stories, all of whom “find themselves falling in and out of love in the strangest of ways.”
Cariani, who recently turned the play into a novel, was not surprised that the show is popular with high school drama coaches. According to the group that licenses it, “Almost, Maine” was the most performed play in high schools last year in the United States.
“High school teachers like ‘Almost Maine’ because it’s a simple play,” the New York City-based actor and writer said earlier this week. “The stories it tells are simple. And the scenes are all two-person scenes [but one]. So, directors can give lots of attention to actors and the craft of acting and actors can really dig into the stories the play tells.”
The fact that it is about love in many forms also appeals to teenagers, he said, though he did not expect it to early on.
“It’s a complete surprise to me that it’s become popular,” he said. “Theater teachers told me it would be popular among high schoolers, but I never imagined it would be.”
Hermon High Director Christie Robinson said that after the isolation of the pandemic, she wanted to do a show that emphasized the importance of human connection.
“I picked this show because coming out of such an intense time in our lives it made a whole lot of sense to do a play about how we connect with each other,” she said Thursday just before a final dress rehearsal. “I think we lost that sense of connecting with each other. ‘Almost Maine’ portrays how important those connections are and helps us renew them.”
Her student actors found balancing the show’s comedic and dramatic moments challenging and rewarding.
“Lots of comedies are pure slapstick,” senior Logan Brower, 18, of Carmel, who plays Pete and Lendall, said Thursday. “This show puts more heart into the comedy. I don’t traditionally play drama. I’m usually the comic relief. It took me some time to get a grasp on how to play these deep characters.”
Freshman Kristany Raymond, 16, of Hermon said that the stories about people falling in and out of love are relatable for high school students.
“I think the relationships in the play are really powerful and all these characters work together to create this community in northern Maine,” she said.
Rich Kimball, director of the Brewer High production, and Mark Puglisi, director of the MDI High show, said that in addition to the artistic reasons for doing the show, there also are practical reasons so many high school directors choose it.
“For us, it’s also a great choice because of the flexible casting options, and this time of year, I find it’s a lot easier to schedule actors to work on two-person scenes than to try and get an entire ensemble together,” Kimball said. “Since we went to the state finals of the Maine Drama Festival, we didn’t get to hold auditions until late March, and this play is something that’s manageable in that relatively short window for spring productions.”
The fact that “Almost, Maine” calls for simple sets, lighting and modern costumes also makes it appealing, Puglisi said. The fact that it is set in Maine but not Down East Maine is another selling point.
“Since it is up in The County, actors don’t need to affect the local accent,” he said. “In addition, for this school in Down East Maine, it is still from a ‘different place’ as it were. This makes it more interesting.”
The show also can use a cast of 19 or have people play more than one character and use six to eight actors.
“Casting is very flexible, allowing for a lot of people to be involved or, with simple doubling in some or all the shows, fewer people,” Puglisi said. “In this sense, lots of kids get to have their ‘15 minutes of fame.’”