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Appearing in Almost, Maine are (from left) Sean Murphy, Harry Sanderson, Emily Vanni and Marina Pires (photo by Ed Syguda)

Appearing in Almost, Maine are (from left) Sean Murphy, Harry Sanderson, Emily Vanni and Marina Pires (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

The Pine Tree State must be a magical place, judging from Almost, Maine.

Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of taste.

John Cariani’s collection of vignettes is all about relationships—relationships beginning, relationships ending, relationships in flux. Most writers would be content to tackle the subject by throwing a couple of people together and letting human nature take its course, but Cariani prefers to add an element of unreality. His thesis seems to be that the ordinary rules of existence are skewed in the remote town where he sets his tales.

Take the first story, Her Heart. A woman (Emily Vanni) shows up unannounced on the lawn of a local man (Harry Sanderson), sets up a tent and prepares to wait for the Northern Lights to appear. Why? The woman has an explanation that’s both sad and ingenious, but it’s overshadowed by her odd announcement that she’s carrying her heart in a bag. It seems that the organ was broken—literally broken, into so many pieces—by her husband and had to be replaced.

As if this weren’t enough of a jarring distraction, Cariani also gives the man a name that is more or less the opposite of the husband’s. Coincidence, or is this his way of telling us that these two people have been brought together for a reason?

Don’t bother guessing—it’s the latter. You figure this out after subsequent vignettes arrive with their own meaningfully named characters.

I suppose you could label Cariani’s approach “magic realism,” but it strikes me as an unnecessarily heavy-handed example of the genre. Luckily, the acting is not heavy-handed but is subtle and appealing, allowing the tales’ innate charm to survive their author’s occasional excesses.

Working under Christina Kirk’s direction and in the midst of scenic designer Rob Johnson’s spare depiction of a wintry, nighttime landscape, the four actors create a multitude of relatable personalities.

If there’s a standout, it’s Vanni, whose characters range from the aforementioned trespasser to Rhonda, a grownup tomboy being courted by a longtime friend in Seeing the Thing. The other female cast member, Marina Pires, is solid in lower-key roles such as Marci, a woman struggling to reconnect with her husband in Where It Went.

Sanderson is at his best playing men who are a bit confused by their circumstances, such as Marci’s husband, Phil. Final cast member Sean Murphy shines the brightest as Steve, a boy-man who’s oddly impervious to pain in This Hurts.

Whether or not you share my crankiness over Cariani’s take on the subject of romance, you can’t help loving what Otterbein’s versatile cast does with it.

Note: Don’t be surprised if you arrive at Otterbein’s Cowan Hall and find the auditorium empty. The audience section has been set up on the massive stage, which is the new home of Otterbein Summer Theatre. Personally, I always liked the intimate Campus Center Theatre, but apparently it’s no longer available. That being the case, the Cowan stage is a workable alternative.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Almost, Maine at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (June 6-8) at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $22. 614-823-1109 or Otterbein.edu/theatre.

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