Giving Tree takes audiences to ‘Almost, Maine’

Almost, Maine

Giving Tree Theater — opens Dec. 29

Maggie Hart and Cody Edward Johnson in ‘Almost, Maine.’ — photo courtesy of Giving Tree Theater

In 2010, an off-Broadway flop surpassed the classic, whimsical — and royalty-free — Shakespeare comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the most-performed show on U.S. high school stages. The play? John Cariani’s 2004 series of vignettes, Almost, Maine.

Giving Tree Theater in Marion is producing the show this holiday season, opening this Friday, Dec. 29. In the 13 years since it premiered, it has proven to be equally as classic and whimsical as the show it unseated.

Director Richie Akers was first introduced to the show on the recommendation of a radio interviewer in 2015, who had done it in college and loved it. Later, he saw it performed at Cedar Rapids’ Washington High School, and knew he had to bring it to his theatre.

“They did such a nice job with it,” he said in an email. “I immediately could see how such an intimately accessible show would be perfect for our cozy space. I pretty much knew then that I wanted to put it on our schedule and direct it at some point, and knew it would be an appropriate winter season show because of the setting: ‘9:00PM. A cold January night in Almost, Maine. Anticipating the Northern Lights.’ Perfect.”

The play’s nine stories (counting the interwoven Prologue, Interlogue and Epilogue as one) all revolve around themes of love, in ways that are absurdist with just a touch of magic.

“The denizens of Almost, Maine are simply lovely,” Akers said. “What we get to see (as audience members) are nine stories about love that do not bring that modern ‘snark’ to the fold. I just love that.”

Cariani, also an actor, wrote the play as a series of audition pieces for himself. It has proved both enduring and relatable across cultures, having been translated into Korean and Spanish, and performed even in Dubai, UAE, despite the inclusion of a same-sex relationship, which is illegal there. (That same scene led to a high school production in North Carolina having to be reimagined off-campus with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and a determined teacher.)

Giving Tree has opened shows in early January the past two years. The idea to push it a bit earlier, Akers said, “seemed like a safe one.” It was an opportunity “to offer folks an alternative to the endless offerings of movies and concerts during the ‘wind down’ period before New Years Eve,” he said.

The rehearsal process shifted only slightly from their usual — aside from two days off for the Christmas holiday, they maintained the same four week prep schedule as any of their other plays.

“I asked the actors on our first day to focus on making the characters feel real, and not cartoony,” Akers said. “They exist in our world, with love and romance being the defining string that binds the stories together … You will feel good when you leave at the end. It will be time well spent.”

The play runs at Giving Tree on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays (excepting New Year’s Eve) at 2 p.m., through Jan. 14. Tickets run from $15-26 for individual seats, with a Love Box for two going for $60 and a Buddy Box, seating four, for $120.

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