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'Almost, Maine' at Next Stage light, funny, provocative

For a play about love and its pleasures, its slings and arrows, “Almost, Maine” seems to get off on the wrong foot. A young man (Adam Cuppy) drives away (literally) from the young woman (Jade Chavis Watt) he’s clearly falling for.

But this is just the prologue of John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” a whimsical play composed of nine vignettes about people falling in love — or not — in the mythical town of the title on a winter’s night as the Northern Lights dance in the sky.

In the production of the uber-popular, little play that opened Friday at the Craterian’s Next Stage Repertory Company, warmly directed by Doug Warner, the action unfolds on a spare, nearly empty stage dominated by Brad Nelson’s star-spangled, blue, night sky.

Five actors play 19 roles, sliding imperceptibly out of one and into another, in this light-as-a-soufflé comedy about the vagaries of romance. There’s a lot of warm clothing. There are laconic, north-woodsy characters a la Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon and the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo.” Best of all, there are moments when these quirky characters have that sudden flash of falling in love, often followed by goofy grins of amazement.

In one such, a segment called “They Fell,” two plainspoken guys (Cuppy and Max Gutfreund), gobsmacked at the sudden, undeniable attraction they feel for each other, fall literally and repeatedly to the ground. That’s probably the scene that caused the principal of a high school in North Carolina to pull the plug on the play, which recently supplanted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the most-produced play in American high schools.

“Almost, Maine” has a few kisses and one comic make-out scene, all between straight couples, but zero prurient interest. It’s not about sex; it’s about love.

Cariani cleverly solidifies feelings familiar to just about anybody who’s ever loved somebody. This is a world in which if you have a broken heart, you carry it around in a paper sack and it clinks like pieces of slate — a world in which the love you gave somebody can be bundled up in a big, red bag, or compressed into an enduring token.

Just when things are about to get cloying, Cariani throws in something tart. In one segment, a couple (Ric Hagerman and Presila Quinby) break down their failed relationship. The heartbreak moments generally serve as foils for the lovey-dovey.

Fill the thing with competent acting, add vintage songs by Peggy Lee and marinate in the sharp, cold north-woods air. Cap it all off with an epilogue that shows that, after all, what goes around does come around, and it’s a warmly provocative evening of theater.

“Almost, Maine” plays at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center for the Performing Arts, 23 S. Central Ave. Tickets cost $18. For more information, see www.craterian.org.

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.