It's too early for a Valentine's Day celebration, but John Cariani's ode to love, "Almost, Maine," can be the perfect date-night play. (Gentlemen who are courting and want to seem sensitive and thoughtful, take note.)
When done in an over-the-top manner with a cast desperately and obviously trying to milk Cariani's whimsical script for laughs, the show falls flat — like an unconfident suitor who tries too hard on a first date. But Jester Theater Company, in a production onstage at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, expertly finds the correct light touch to let the romance blossom.
Director Jay Hopkins has dialed everything back for this production — from the bare-bones set to the simple musical accompaniment to a mostly lower-key comic style from his cast of four. It's somewhat of a departure for Jester, which often hits with louder, broader comedy such as "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)" or "Noises Off." And it works like a charm.
Cariani's 2006 play consists of a series of vignettes about the residents of "Almost, Maine," a small, unsophisticated community in the northernmost reaches of the continental U.S. Many of the characters are eccentric, most induce sympathy and all are faced with love and the messy implications of that complicated emotion.
The playwright frequently employs the conceit that in this unusual town, common expressions become literal. So a woman whose heart was broken really has its pieces (she carries it around in a paper bag). Yes, it's very twee, which is why the only way to keep the show from dissolving into sugary dreck is to play it simply and directly. And that's what Jester's production does.
The show is beloved by high schools, colleges and other amateur groups because the cast can expand or contract as needed. Jester employs four veterans of its past productions to play the more than a dozen roles, and each shows a keen understanding of the pitfalls of romance.
Gemma Fearn is appealingly sympathetic as a widow who wants to bid farewell to her deceased husband by watching the Northern Lights and later as a woman hoping to return to high-school sweetheart. Ryan Gigliotti has fun as a man who can't feel pain.
Michele Simms Feren adds fun physical comedy as a disgruntled wife who wields a mean ironing board, and then as a tough-talking, snowmobile-racing country gal. But it's Don Fowler who shows the most range — from a sad-sack man who accidentally crashes his ex-girlfriend's bachelorette party, to a blue-collar guy who finds love in an unexpected place, to a soft-hearted artist wannabe.
Diehard cynics and the recently uncoupled had probably best stay away. But for the rest of us, there's an awful lot to love.
• What: A Jester Theater Company production of John Cariani's romantic comedy
• Length: 1:50, including intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. today, Jan. 12; 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13; 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, and Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 17-19.
• Tickets: $18; $15 on Monday, Jan. 14
• Call: 407-447-1700Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun