Almost dreaming: Heritage Theatre Festival’s Almost, Maine walks the line between reality and fantasy

The characters of Almost, Maine, onstage this week at the Heritage Theatre Festival, find love in unexpected places. Photo: Heritage Theatre Festival The characters of Almost, Maine, onstage this week at the Heritage Theatre Festival, find love in unexpected places. Photo: Heritage Theatre Festival

I dream a lot.

I have vivid, semi-hallucinatory dreams, the kind that feel logical and totally substantial until I’m breathing underwater or watching a tulip tree melt onto the sidewalk. I sense sun on my skin and words in my mouth, and my captivation is so complete that my conscious mind can only ping like dim sonar: what if this isn’t real?

For David Dalton, UVA Drama Department lecturer, this liminal edge is both the aim and vehicle by which he works. “Theater can surprise audiences and take them places they don’t expect,” he says. “Sometimes you forget you’re in a theater. You forget you’re watching people you may know.”

Dalton, who worked for many years as a director on the New York theater scene, directs the Heritage Theatre Festival’s summer production of Almost, Maine, a show that happily blurs the lines between reality and almost reality.

“Stuck in a no man’s land that is not quite in Canada and not quite in the United States, the residents of Almost, Maine are forever betwixt and between,” reads the production’s press release. Lost in the darkness of a moonless winter’s night and bathed by the eerie glow of the Northern Lights, Almost’s characters move in and out of budding and fading romance, inspired by familiar impulses into tender moments, slapstick physical comedy and the occasional swell of magic.

The play features just four actors who populate 19 roles across nine vignettes, starry-eyed stories written by playwright and actor John Cariani for his own theatrical auditions. It broke box office records at its 2004 debut in Portland, Maine, and though its Off-Broadway run was brief and considered something of a critical flop, Almost quickly became a favorite among high schools and regional theater companies. The show’s 2014 New York revival was led by a UVA MFA grad, Jack Cummings III of the Transport Theatre Company. Members of the faculty were involved as well.

Dalton, who’s just wrapping up his first year with the Hoos, continues the tradition with this show and believes Heritage provides an ideal setting for another go-round. “Everyone [here] is eager to be transported,” he says. “It’s especially interesting doing a play that is about discovering love in the middle of winter in a rural environment in suburban summertime Charlottesville.”

As he constructed a vision for the show—his directorial debut at UVA—Dalton embraced the idea of transportation to far-off realms. “I tried to align the idea of being transported to the way that love can transport us when it is discovered in unexpected ways,” he says.

He designed scene transitions to facilitate a clarified sense of transformation for the audience. “When the actors come in they’re embracing [Charlottesville] summer. Then they’re transported to Almost, Maine to become the characters they are. They exist outside the play, then they’re transported in it,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll change costumes right in front of the audience. They do all the scene transitions themselves.”

Dalton has found ways to heighten a script’s blend of fantasy and reality throughout his career. A graduate of Columbia University, he directed a number of new plays with NYC-based theater company Naked Angels.

He also created adaptations of classics, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera HMS Pinafore, which stretched scripted limits. “I found a children’s book Sullivan wrote after the show debuted with sheet music designed so that kids could read along and learn music, and he couldn’t help but make jokes that didn’t exist within the musical itself,” he says.

He built on that idea in his production by adding a young narrator and pop-up imagery, which allowed him to create “a sense of childlike wonder” on stage. “HMS Pinafore is often overlooked. It’s sung by a society and not seen as an innovative work, but this allowed me to create a context in which people could rediscover the joy of this piece, in which people could experience something they might otherwise overlook.”

In Almost, Dalton sees an opportunity to once again help people notice, to pay attention. “The show is so successful because it’s a sentimental play that’s surprisingly funny. That’s something that is welcomed by audiences and not so much by critics,” he says. “It’s an interesting play, and the playwright has written in some elements that surprise people. The appearance of the Northern Lights causes a disruption that creates the opportunity for love and sometimes something new.”

In other words, in a play on the border between here and there, audiences are apt to spot something strange on the periphery. To wake up and notice a type of magic woven into everyday life.

Almost, Maine plays at Ruth Caplin Theatre through August 1

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