Review: John Cariani's Last Gas premieres at Portland Stage

Pursuit of happiness
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 16, 2010

FACED WITH CHOICES Life in Northern Maine, in Last Gas.

It's hard to get anywhere from Township 15, Range 8 — it's vast, empty, and hours from even Bangor. Up here, "the broccoli and potatoes go further than the people do," says Lurene (Kathy McCafferty), one of the people who did go far away, to her rut-stuck old flame Nat Paradis (the sweetly appealing David Mason), one of the people who didn't. When McCafferty's high-energy Lurene comes home from New York to bury her mother, throwing a wrench in Nat's birthday plans with his best friend Guy (Mike Houston), Nat has occasion to question the life he has quietly settled for. The challenge of where and in whom to find happiness, and how to shake up a time-worn m.o., is at the heart of Last Gas, a comedic drama by Maine native John Cariani that receives its world-premiere main-stage production at Portland Stage Company, under the direction of Sally Wood.

Last Gas is the second work that Cariani, a New York-based actor and playwright who grew up in Presque Isle, has premiered at Portland Stage: His comedy Almost, Maine, a series of whimsically interconnected love stories set in the fictional far-north town of Almost, opened here in 2004 before going on to successes Off-Broadway and beyond. Cariani's newest work first came to Portland Stage in 2009, as a staged reading in the Little Festival of the Unexpected.

Almost, Maine and Last Gas are both quirkily comedic and both set in remote northern Maine, but this new work differs from the earlier in immediately visible ways. While the stage of Almost was wide, sparsely furnished, and occasionally dappled with magical realism, Last Gas brings us into the meticulously realistic minutiae of Paradis's Last Convenient Store (very echt set design by Anita Stewart), a setting that dominates the story and its 30-something, often sad protagonist Nat: His world is a modest bounty of candy bars, cigarettes, lottery tickets, whoopie pies, sodas in the cooler, smears on windows and door, and fluorescent lights that flicker on and off in listless, staggered sequence.

In the narrow space outside the store are bundled cordwood, blue washer fluid, and a vault of amber stars hinting at the wilderness beyond. Upstairs, in the light of the Pepsi sign, is a decent hovel of an apartment where slow-moving Nat, who runs the store, still lives with his man-about-town dad Dwight (an entertaining Tom Bloom, like a elderly marionette Don Juan in a leather jacket). The apartment sometimes also houses Nat's confident 16-year-old son Troy (Dave Register, with intelligent, steady candor), whose custody he shares with Cherry-Tracy, a comically persnickety forest ranger (Moira Driscoll, who hams it up, but later homes in sensitively on this woman's own ache). With weary gaze and slouch, Nat lets his dad, son, and mother of his son walk all over him, though he has an intensely loyal companion in his buddy Guy (whom Houston imbues with dry Yankee gravity, restraint, and — sometimes — passive-aggression).

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