Casts Old and Young

Actors charm in 'Almost, Maine' at Beowulf, and warm the heart in LTW's 'Cemetery Club'

"Charming" is the first word I'd use to describe Beowulf Alley's Almost, Maine.

Then I might scrunch up my face and add, "Maybe a little ... twee?"

According to Merriam-Webster, "twee" means "affectedly or excessively ... delicate, cute, or quaint."

It means that sometimes charm can be a little ... much.

John Cariani's play Almost, Maine is a set of separate, stand-alone vignettes. They all take place in the same mythical Maine town.

In this place, metaphors become literal. For instance, in one sketch, two men (played by Patrick Baum and Seth Fowler) who keep falling down discover that they might actually be falling in love.

In another, a woman (Leslie Miller) returns to an ex-boyfriend (Jared Stokes), carrying sacks full of "all the love you gave me." She demands the "love I gave you" in return. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out that all the love she gave him has been transformed into a diamond ring.

See? Charming! And a little ... twee.

Names start to take on a special resonance in this magical town. A woman (China Young) carrying the 19 pieces of her broken heart wants to see the northern lights, so she camps out in the backyard of a young man (also played by Baum). The man she is mourning was named Wes; this new man, with whom she soon forms a love connection, is named East. GEDDIT? WES-T AND EAST?

The play can be performed with as few as four cast members; at Beowulf, director Maria Caprile has a cast eight actors, each doubling up at least once. They are all pretty young, and they have a wide range of theatrical experience. (In the case of Fowler, he's making his first onstage appearance.)

Yet you wouldn't immediately notice these differences in background. It's to the credit of director Caprile and the cast that everyone's performance is lively and engaged. The play might feel excessively cutesy at times, but the cast tackles each quirky scenario with gusto.

Set designers Jim Ambrosek and David Swisher use white lights and a simple backdrop to create the feeling of a Maine winter. The music by Julian Fleisher adds an appropriate atmosphere—his score is lovely and a little strange.

An actor himself, Cariani originally wrote some of the vignettes to perform at auditions. The full play was a huge regional hit when it premiered with the Portland Stage Company in 2004. A 2005-2006 transition to off-Broadway was a flop, but Almost, Maine has had a robust second life: It's been performed all over the world and is a staple of high-school productions.

The play's simple sweetness and humor as well as its variety of parts make it ideal for beginning and younger actors. And if Almost, Maine's saccharine quirkiness caused me to wince a little, the performances by Beowulf's young actors made me smile. It gives a young cast the chance to shine.

By contrast, Live Theatre Workshop's The Cemetery Club gives three older female actors a chance to dig their teeth into meaty roles.

Writer Ivan Menchell wrote The Cemetery Club in tribute to his mother. Set in Queens, N.Y., in the 1980s, the play centers around three Jewish widows who together take monthly outings to the cemetery to visit the graves of their late husbands.

That sounds like a grim premise, and in fact the play is shot through with profound melancholy. But it's a comedy at heart—a romantic comedy.

The conflict of the play is whether it's appropriate for the widows to begin dating again. Flamboyant Lucille (Roxanne Harley) is intent on playing the field, while Doris (Peg Peterson) is content to live in the past.

Caught in the middle is Ida (Leah Kari). Lucille pressures her to date, but Ida is unsure if she can. But when she meets widower Sam (Michael Woodson), she begins to consider the possibility of later-in-life love. For different reasons, this romance causes friction with her friends.

In 1993, Menchell adapted his play into a feature film starring Ellen Burstyn, Diane Ladd and Olympia Dukakis. Both in the film and in this production, it's refreshing to see older women getting such layered roles. These women express sexual desire, grief and pettiness as well as deeply rooted loyalty, love and humor.

The patrons behind me on opening night had several complaints, largely that the show was predictable and that the acting was not on par with that of other LTW shows.

I'd say that both complaints have some merit, but are ultimately unfair. Known most recently for his work on television shows, from The Nanny to Phil of the Future to Jonas, Menchell is clearly a fan of formulas. But while The Cemetery Club's plot isn't groundbreaking, it's well constructed.

The acting by Harley and Kari could be better technically in terms of their movement and vocal control. But both do an excellent job of giving their characters a human core.

By the end of the play, the audience is attached to these women (and the male suitor). We're reluctant to leave Ida's homey living room (created by LTW's set design wizards, Richard and Amanda Gremel).

Like the characters in the play, we leave wishing that life did not so often require us to leave behind those we care about.