Mark Clayton Southers, the artistic director and founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, has continually made evident downtown his talents in staging plays and in getting solid performances from his casts. Now he does the same thing at South Park Theatre. He shows a great feeling for funny physical business and has elicited polished and versatile playing by eight quasi-professional actors.
The script from 2004 is by actor John Cariani and is called Almost Maine His only play so far has become much admired and produced in many many theatres considerably distant from the territory of the title. Actually, calling it a play doesn’t define it clearly. This really consists of nine character sketches where the people and events are only slightly connected to each other, if at all, even though each sketch takes place on the same winter night. Each focuses on interactions among couples. I know that that may sound quite simple, especially given that the nature of love comes across as the heart of the entire experience. But Cariani brings offbeat, loony imagination to many of the scenes, scenes full of surprises for the characters and for the audience. A few pieces go deeper than others, while a few in the second act don’t work as well as those preceding them. Admire especially those times when the underlying subject concerns how much love weighs, or how love can cause pain, or what it means to fall head over heels in love.
Director Southers make everything work credibly and with polish. And he gets his actors to play the off-the-wall stuff with the kind of sincerity that keeps it fresh. The eight performers, including locally famed Barbara Russell, take on 19 characters and they always seem well cast, even if most bring no special variety to multiple interpretations. However, Michael Shahen stands out the most interestingly versatile in three sketches, each a different variation on innocent dopiness. And Robert J. Roberts has wonderfully comic body language in the scene about love’s weight.
This emerges as a charming experience, featuring well-directed, good acting in good material.
Almost Maine continues through September 18th at South Park Theatre. Info and tickets at: 412/ 831-8552) southparktheatre.com