Almost, Maine Synopsis
We tend to think of “plot” as being synonymous with “story.” But
while plots are often stories, there’s no law that says they have to be. And this play is a
prime illustration of that non-law.
A “story” is a sequence of events, a train of actions linked causally with one another. As the English novelist E.M. Forster tells us, if I say, “The King died; then the Queen died,” I am simply giving you a chronicle. But if I say, “The King died, and the Queen died of grief,” then I am telling you a story, relating a chain of events which flow from one another.
We are accustomed to having a play tell us a single long story, sometimes with substories that are related to the main narrative. Last season at The Public Theater we saw The Nerd, which tells the story of an elaborate ruse by means of which a diffident young architect learns to be bold and self-assertive. We saw The Old Settler, which tells the story of a middle aged woman who engages in a hopeless romance with a much younger man. Each of these plays focuses on a protagonist who pursues a consistent objective throughout the course of the action, beginning at a certain point, continuing through various obstacles the middle, and reaching an outcome at the end.
Almost, Maine doesn’t work like that. Instead, as we have noted above, it is composed of eight vignettes, each no more than fifteen minutes, plus a prologue, an “interlogue,” and an epilogue—which are even briefer than the vignettes.
Seven of the vignettes feature two characters, none of whom ever appears again in any of the other scenes. One vignette has three characters, but we never see any of them again either. The same two characters do appear in the prologue and epilogue, and one of them shows up in the interlogue—but neither is in any of the vignettes. Thus, in eleven short scenes we are introduced to nineteen characters, with each of whom we spend only a few minutes.
The reason we never see the same character appearing more than once is that all these vignettes are taking place at the same time in our small town: “Everything takes place at nine o’clock on a Friday night in the middle of winter.”
So this is not the kind of continuous story with a complex train of incidents and extensively developed characters that we most often encounter in the theater. Instead, what holds Almost, Maine together—apart from the fact that all the action takes place in the same small town at the same moment—is the fact that each of these short scenes is about the hazards we encounter in the pursuit of love. What gives the plot its unity, in other words, is the structural principle of theme and variations. Every scene is about love, but every scene looks at a different aspect of this focal subject
In the Prologue, for instance, Ginette and Pete declare for the first time that they love each other, an event that would seem un-problematically wonderful. Except that it’s Ginette who says it first, and Pete takes just a bit too long to pick up his cue and respond in kind. So what should be a wonderful moment stretches into a long interval of discomfort for poor Ginette.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Pete then begins an extensive riff about how, even though they’re sitting right next to each other, they’re really not as close as possible (Ginette’s preferred view of the situation), but instead they are really as far from one another as they can be. “[I]f you think about it technically,” he explains in a geek-squad sort of way,
If you’re assuming the world is round, like a ball, (gathering snow to make a snow ball for use as a visual) the farthest away you can be from somebody is if you’re sitting right next to them. See, if I’m here (points out a place on the snowball that represents him . . .), and you’re here (points out a place . . . that represents her, and it’s right next to him . . .), then (Pete now shows that if you go around the world the other way—all the way . . .—that he and Ginette are actually as far away from each other as they can possibly be.) . . . that’s far. . .
Not surprisingly, Ginette is less than overwhelmed by this sophomoric paradox, and feeling that the romantic aura of the moment has been snuffed out by Pete, she stands and begins slowly moving away from him, a retreat she continues all the way through Pete’s increasingly desperate attempt to talk his way out of the mess he’s made of the evening.
Pete tries to rescue the situation with another paradox. By moving away from him, he tells her—building on his original insight—“you’re closer. . . . and closer. . . . and closer.” By which time Ginette has disappeared, exiting stage left and leaving Pete to savor his geographical koan all by himself.
What happens in this brief scene anticipates most of what is to follow in the next eight vignettes.
We meet two nice people who have come to a crucial moment in the drama of love. But, because love is so tricky, it’s essential that everybody watch his step. One move can be decisive, for better or worse.
The slightest hesitation, or miscue, or fumbled opportunity can create a world of loss and hurt. But an opportunity deftly seized, a word well-spoken, a healing gesture can bring a player safely home to love’s end-zone.
In the Prologue, it looks like Pete has stumbled onto the loser’s side of the field. Seated under a scintillating winter sky, next to a sweet girl who loves him, he totally squanders his opportunity for romantic success. Instead, by misplaying the scene, he’s left alone on stage, under a winter sky that now seems cold and forbidding. Pete was almost there.
But not quite.
The remaining scenes play variations on this pattern.
For example, in “Her Heart” a woman travels to Maine to view the soul of her estranged husband in the northern lights, which she believes are actually the torches of the newly dead who are finding their way to heaven. By seeing the lights, she will have the chance to say the goodbye that remained unspoken while her husband was alive.
With her, in a brown paper bag, she carries the shattered pieces of her heart, broken when her husband abandoned her. While searching for the lights, she meets Earl, the repairman, who falls in love with her on the spot. She tells Earl her story, they see the northern lights, she bids her dead husband farewell. And Earl repairs her broken heart. If she had’nt come to Maine, she wouldn’t have met Earl, and hear heart would remain broken. So we have another almost tale—about love almost missed.
In other vignettes, couples try to break up and fail; or they discover, sadly, that they no longer love each other; or they realize, against all odds, that they do. One way or another, at nine o’clock on this particular winter Friday in Almost, Maine, the drama of love is being played out in its many variations.