When Nicolet College Theatre Director Jim Nuttall put out an audition call for the Nicolet Players production of Almost, Maine, he imagined he’d be selecting a cast of six or eight actors. Each actor would be required to play two or more of the 19 roles that playwright John Cariani wrote into his popular play about life in rural Maine.
“This currently is the most produced play among high school and college theatres,” Nuttall said, “and most of the productions are done with a small cast. But that’s not how it turned out for us. We had a huge turnout of 36 for the auditions and I had a hard time eliminating anyone. I ended up casting the 19 roles with 19 actors.”
The play is written as a bouquet of nine two-character vignettes, all taking place at nine o’clock on a snowy winter night, with the Northern Lights lighting up the sky. The characters are quirky, small-town folk, drawn from the playwright’s experience of growing up in rural Maine. Weird things happen under the influence of the Northern Lights: there are unexpected kisses between strangers, truths blurted out between ex-lovers, metaphors that materialize into reality, and some slapstick and bizarrely surreal behaviors. It’s a little bit of Northern Exposure mixed with Twilight Zone.
But mostly, said Nuttall, Almost, Maine is a romantic comedy that will pull at your heart strings. “The play explores the quirks people have in dealing with love and relationships,” he said, “and there are some absolutely hilarious moments, because we see pieces of ourselves in each of these scenes.”
Nuttall added, “The strength of the play is that it’s written by an actor who knows what actors need to bring their character to life. In these short scenes, the actor gets an opportunity to explore the defenses and coping mechanisms his character requires to deal with a difficult situation.”
Justin Tucker (he goes by Tucker) of Rhinelander plays the character Jimmy in a scene where Jimmy runs into his ex-girlfriend at a bar and tries to win her back. “What Jimmy doesn’t know yet is, she’s having a bachelorette party and is about to marry this really awesome guy,” Tucker explained. “As he begins to realize what’s going on, you can see that things are not going his way. The challenge for me is to convey what Jimmy is feeling inside while he says things that are completely opposite. So it’s not what my character is saying, but how he says it.”
This is Tucker’s debut as an actor, though he did take an acting class with Nuttall. He’s paired with Anna Schwartz, with whom he coincidentally read the role during auditions. “Jim did a great job with casting,” Tucker said. “Everybody is perfect for their role.”
Anna Schwartz, also of Rhinelander, plays Sandrine, the girl who broke up with Jimmy to date someone else. “The scene between Tucker and me is really about Jimmy’s character,” she said. “I’m just bouncing off him. It’s so awkward when Sandrine runs into Jimmy. His reactions to the situation are what make the scene both very funny and a little sad.”
Audiences may remember Schwartz in last spring’s play, Harvey, in which she played the role of Nurse Kelly with fine comedic ardor. This comedy, Schwartz said, “will hit a little closer to home. Almost, Maine could be Rhinelander. The play is all about love-falling in and out of love, and individual stories of love and heartbreak. People will identify with the characters, and they will leave feeling really good. It’s such a heartwarming play.”
Performances take place Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8, 9, and 10, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 11, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $9 for the general public and $7 for students and seniors and may be purchased in advance online by visiting nicoletlive.com, or by calling the box office at (715) 365-4646.