When asked for her favorite vignette in John Cariani’s romantic comedy “Almost, Maine,” Director Kathryn Stirling said it changes every night.
One night, it was the vignette where two female friends realize they have fallen in love. Another night, it was the one about a couple that decided to move on. The day before, it was a scene that showed friends taking their relationship to the next level.
“It just hits me fresh every single time–even though we have been working on this for eight weeks now,” she said.
To open its 70th consecutive season, Rockville Little Theatre (RLT) will perform the play from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. “Almost, Maine,” which premiered in Portland, Maine, in 2004, features nine interlocking vignettes following different couples in various stages of their relationships. The play has a similar framework to the 2003 movie “Love Actually,” yet the common thread is the town rather than how the characters interact or know each other.
A professional actress when she was in her 20s and 30s, this is Stirling’s first stint as director. She served as assistant director for two previous RLT productions: “Our Town” and “Jake’s Women.”
Stirling submitted a proposal to the board to direct this show “because I thought it was an actor’s show and I thought ‘That is my strength’,” she said. “I know how to develop character and I know how to work with people to help them get there.”
Two friends recommended the play to Stirling, who had not heard of it before. “This show is so wonderful because each (vignette) is complete within itself,” she said. “There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Each little story is a charming little vignette. There is no time to build a giant plot. It’s really got to be the characters. The actors have to walk on stage completely ready. As an actor, you’ve got maybe two or three minutes to establish who you are because the scene is over in five more minutes.”
Because of the separate nature of the vignettes, Producer Dean Fiala worried that the cast members might not connect as much as one that performs a whole play together. Such concerns did not come to fruition. “The cast has really come together nicely,” he said. “They have really bonded. They are really upping each other’s games. It has been fun to watch that come together.”
Stirling noted that Kristyn Lue, who plays Rhonda, a character who doesn’t realize her best friend Dave wants to take their friendship to a romantic level, often comes early to rehearsals to cheer on her castmates and arrange for meetups for coffee or a potluck meal.
Now studying higher education policy on the graduate level at the University of Maryland College Park, Lue had been involved in theater at her California high school and only recently decided to return to the stage. “I think (the cast has) really come together over the last couple of weeks and everybody really wants to get to know (each other). They really want to support each other in their scenes,” Lue said. “It’s been a really amazing experience and I am really grateful for that because these are people I never would have met otherwise.”
Stirling’s goal was to steer away from the superficial or cutesy direction of many a romantic comedy and instead, focus more on the real-world scenarios being played out on stage. “All you have to do is really scrape the surface and you come to this poignant truth of the universality of love,” she said. “It just touches you in a way that is utterly unpredictable.
“When you’ve been left, when your heart has been broken, when a relationship has petered out and gone wrong or when you fall in love at first sight–I think everybody can relate to that. It can be presented just as charming, quirky people being in love with each other or you can go further and just look at the depths of how that can make a person feel to have someone they love walk in and say they are done. That is what we tried to go for. We tried to go for that truth behind the funny.”
Fiala finds the show both human and funny. “It is an antidote to the day-to-day mundaneness,” he said. “It is also an antidote to the day-to-day scary things going on in the world. It reconnects you to what life is about and why it is fun to be alive. Despite the pain and sorrow, it is ultimately worth being out there in the world and interacting with people.”
Stirling envies audiences who will see the show and meet the characters for the first time. “I think the audience is going to enjoy themselves,” she said. “The old adage, ‘They are going to laugh, they are going to cry and then they are going to clap,’ and I also think they are going to go home and think about it.”
Rockville Little Theatre presents “Almost, Maine” at 8 p.m. Sept. 22, 23, 29 and 30 and 2 p.m. Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Tickets are $22, $20 for seniors (62-plus) and students with valid ID. Call 240-314-8690 or visit http://rlt-online.org.