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Maine-Born Playright Brings Rural Perspective to New York Theater

11/08/2010 Reported By: Tom Porter

Actor and playwright John Cariani is back in his home state of Maine this week to promote his latest play, "Last Gas," which enjoyed its world premiere on Friday at the Portland Stage Company. "Last Gas" is Cariani's second major play set in Maine: The first one, "Almost Maine," also premiered at Portland Stage, and in the six years since, has become one of the most produced plays in the country.

John Cariani may best be known to some as forensics technician Julian Beck, a role he played for many years on the popular TV series, "Law and Order."

Cariani's considerable acting chops also garnered him a Tony Award for his role in the 2004 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. But, it's as a playwright that he's back in Maine, on hand to oversee the debut of his new work, "Last Gas," which has just begun a three-week run at the Portland Stage Company.

Cariani has clearly taken to heart the advice often given to aspiring writers--"write about what you know."

John Cariani: "I live in New York, I grew up in Presque Isle, Maine, and I'm an actor in New York and also a playwright, and one of the things I've noticed about New York is that a lot of the art that's made there in the theater world is very New York-centric. I found in a lot of the new plays that I was reading, they were about New York, and New Yorkers and cosmopolitan ideas and ideals, and very urban. And I feel like there's a whole population that's kind of ignored in the theater world, and that is kind of rural America--not suburban America but rural America, and I would call Aroostook County pretty rural. And I was interested in telling stories about people who work hard for a living and are very smart, who don't live in cities."

"Last Gas" (right) tells the story of Nat Paradis, an unremarkable guy who runs a gas station and convenience store in the wilds of Aroostook County--the last place to refuel, in fact, before heading into the great North Woods.

John Cariani: He's almost 35 years old, he's been running a convenience store. He's probably been doing pretty much the same thing day in and day out for an awful long time. He hasn't done much himself, although all his hopes and dreams have come true, in that the Red Sox have won the World Series--that's kind of like the only thing he ever hoped for. And I think he's realizing that he has to hope for more, because he's got a lot of life to live, and he has a chance to go do something, and a old flame comes into town and kind of puts a wrench into the plans that he's made."

The arrival of said "old flame" from New York is not welcomed by Nat's friend, Guy, for reasons which later become apparent.

Play Excerpt: Door Chimes Ring:

"Hi."

"Hi."

"Is Nat here? Paradis?

"No."

"Oh. I just called him, like, 15 minutes ago. Do you know when he'll be back?"

"No."

Tom Porter: "So this guy, he's lived in the same town all his life, one of the themes of the play seems to be, can you be happy and just do the same thing all your life and not really see much and have narrow horizons, but stll be happy?

John Cariani: "Oh, I think so. When I was growing up there, I was encouraged to leave--I think a lot of kids were encouraged to leave. I have friends who have made great homes and a great life in Presque Isle, and I am learning that you don't have to go anywhere to be who you want to be, and do what you want to do. Who you are is about you, and not the place that you live in, and that's something I'm figuring out right, you know what I mean?"

Play Excerpt:

"Where do you want to go?"

"It's too late for me to go anywhere, Guy. If you want to leave this part of the world, you've gotta do it when you're young. You wait too long you can't outrun all the things you done--they catch right up to ya, and weigh you down so heavy, the next thing you know you're going five miles an hour."

To ensure the dialog sounds as authentic as possible, Cariani spent quite a bit of time back in his home town while working on the play.

"In the spring of 2008, I spent probably about six weeks altogether up there, doing some research, walking around, thinking, going to convenience stores--because that's the setting of the play "Last Gas"--and I spent a lot of time with friends who are from up there, and just interviewed a lot of people, asked lots of questions, spent a lot of time just hanging out, to kind of re-absorb the vibe."

The play, he adds, could not have been written without these trips back home. "I started writing it in New York, but I think going back home helped me find a little more truth, so I wasn't too much of an observer, I was more of a participant."

John Cariani has good feelings about being back at Portland Stage Company: It was here in 1986 that he decided to make a career out of the theater, and he remembers the exact moment. He was a high school junior on a school trip down from Presque Isle, to see a production of The Cherry Orchard, by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

JC: "It was the first live play I had ever seen. I had seen lots of musicals in my home town, but that was the first real play I had ever seen. And I was kind of fascinated by the fact that people were only talking, and then there was a particular scene where one character is looking at this man that she's in love with. She's looking out the window at this guy she's in love with, and this guy comes into the room where she's standing looking out the window, and he loves her, and he tells her he wants some of her attention, and she says, 'Don't bother me, can't you see I'm busy dreaming?' So you have this woman dreaming about another guy, and this guy dreaming about this woman, and everybody's got misplaced affection."

TP: "I bet a lot of teenagers would relate to that."

JC: "Oh, we all did. Whatever wants you, you don't want that. And I thought it was just so interesting, it was achy, you know, really painful. That was our favorite part of the play and I just thought I want to be in plays like that where you feel like that, because that's what's so interseting, is how you survive through those achy times in life and thrive, you know what I mean?"

TP: So it made the seven-hour, six-hour drive worth it?"

JC: "It was only six hours, probably--totally worth it. Going to Portland was fun, too, we were psyched."

"Last Gas" by John Cariani is being performed at Portland Stage Company until Nov. 21. For details visit www,portlandstage.org

 


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