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Northern underexposure
Jon Cariani's Almost, Maine was almost invisible
Kayli Carter and James Edwards in a scene from the SCAD production of Almost, Maine.

Gentle, magically quirky and subversively funny, John Cariani's Almost, Maine is currently the most-produced play among school and community theater groups in the country.

Yet this low-key romantic comedy, about couples falling in and out of love while they wait for the Northern Lights in the New England sky, was an abject failure when it premiered off-Broadway in 2006.

Consisting of nine vignettes performed by a cast of 11, Almost, Maine is the latest production from the theater department at SCAD. It's onstage Nov. 10-13 at the Mandanaro Theatre.

Sharon Ott, the program's director, is co-directing Almost, Maine with Mark Tymchyshyn. It's "the little play that could," she says.

"It happened to hit New York at a time that was particularly bleak," Ott continues. "I didn't see the original New York production, so I'm not sure if some of the issues were production-related.

"But the tone, which is sweet, I think, and optimistic, just hit a wrong chord with all those very cynical New York critics. In a down year, when it was pretty depressing in terms of the political environment. And also the plays that were popular - that was the year of Rabbit Hole - it was a dark year."

Five years, however, can make all the difference. "Colleges are always looking for scenes that can be done by students," Ott says, "i.e. age-appropriate scenework for our kids. Vignettes, as opposed to full length plays, which in classes can be hard to deal with.

"So it started to gain some popularity in colleges, and in high schools. Although I think the material is too difficult for high schools, by far and away. But I can see where even they would be attracted to it because of its sweetness. You know, it's not Rabbit Hole - about the death of a child, or child abuse - it's about love. So I think as people started to know it, it charmed them."

Almost, Maine, was New England-born actor Cariani's first play, developed in 2002 by the Cape Cod Theater Project. It debuted two years later in Portland, Me., where it became the longest-running hit of the Portland Stage Company.

The Wall Street Journal named it one of the best regional theater productions of 2004-2005, and the New American National Theatre chose it as one of the year's best new works.

Off-Broadway was next. And we already know how that turned out.

There is no story arc, per se, no real sense of continuity, although the characters occasionally refer to other residents of teeny-tiny Almost (residents that inevitably turn up in a later scene).

"John Cariani is from Northern Maine, so he knows what he's writing about," Ott says. "And he goes to great lengths in saying that it's not meant to be a Fargo - he's not making fun of the residents of Northern Maine.

"But there's still a kind of regional quirkiness to these people that he catches. That's part of the charm."

Carinai, who nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Motel the Tailor in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof in 2004, told Broadway World that one scene - just one - in Almost, Maine is autobiographical.

"But most of the episodes are just imagined," he said. "I mean - where I grew up has had a huge influence on me. It's a place where there aren't many people and there's lots of sky. The world feels much bigger there somehow.

"So the play is mostly a tribute to that place - a place where there seems to be so much possibility because there's time and space to daydream."

Almost, Maine

Where: SCAD Mandanaro Theatre, 217 MLK

When: At 8 p.m. Nov. 1-12, at 3 p.m. Nov. 13

Tickets: $10 general admission, $5 with senior, student or military ID. The Thursday performance free with valid SCAD ID