The folks up in “Almost, Maine” sure are cute — not so cute that you want to take out a gun and shoot them, but … almost. In nine sketches set on the same cold, starry night in the middle of winter, a cross-section of the love-starved inhabitants of this tiny township tentatively reach out for human warmth. While a measure of bile or bitterness might have made these overly sweet oddballs more genuinely engaging, they are just weird enough not to cross the line from quirky character comedy into brittle sitcom territory.
The idiosyncratic characters who reveal themselves in these serio-comic vignettes are mostly, but not entirely, well served by the surreal style adopted by actor-turned-playwright John Cariani (Tony-nominated for “Fiddler on the Roof”) to spin his tales of love lost and found. A woman whose heart was broken when her husband walked out on her carries the splintered shards of it around with her in a brown paper bag. A man who claims to be unable to feel the pain of love proves it by repeatedly hitting himself over the head with hard objects. Former sweethearts who meet to return the love they once gave each other literally hand the stuff over in sacks.
Although the literal nature of this symbolism swamps the weaker entries in the package, the gimmickry is handled with good humor by the clever designers.
To convey both the beauty and the isolation of this rural area of northern Maine (closer to a suburb of Canada than an outpost of New England), set designer James Youmans buries the stage under light-catching banks of snow and uses the back wall as the canvas for a shower of stars in a midnight-blue sky. To give the audience the crisp sensation of that winter sky, lighting designer Jeff Croiter blankets the entire auditorium in darkness and starlight.
In this magical setting, the otherwise ordinary romances of these vignettes take on an element of enchantment — especially when the characters are moved by the mysteries they read in the night sky.
In “Where It Went,” a discontented wife and her distracted husband (played with sensitivity by Miriam Shor and Justin Hagan) make wishes on shooting stars and maybe, just maybe, find the love that has gone out of their marriage — or at least the boot that she loses when they go ice skating on Echo Pond.
Similarly, in “Her Heart,” two sad strangers (treated tenderly by Finnerty Steeves and Hagan) make a romantic connection when the Northern Lights torch up the midnight sky. And in an untitled three-part sketch that frames the show, a painfully shy woman and her inarticulate swain (lovely perfs from Steeves and Todd Cerveris) find the courage to speak of love while sitting on a bench, gazing in wonder at the field of stars above their heads.
But even when the romantic action takes place indoors, the deciding factor in the success or failure of each vignette has to do with the depth of the characterizations and the honesty of the writing. A line that cuts to the heart of an emotion — like a rejected lover’s complaint that “I haven’t seen you since that night before that morning when I woke up and you were just gone” — energizes a scene far more effectively than the visual gags and literal symbols Cariani uses to telegraph his intentions.
Helmer Gabriel Barre (“The Wild Party”) faithfully renders the bags of love and blazing stars and other miraculous effects that mean so much to the playwright, even when they come across as pure whimsy. But the real value of his work on this script — which came out of the Cape Cod Theater Project, went on to have its professional premiere at Maine’s Portland Stage Company and probably has a good future in regional theater, if not in stone-hearted New York — emerges in the care that he has taken to keep the characters real and their emotions honest.