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PTC tops off the tank with 'Last Gas'

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Maine-based comedy opens theater's 2011-12 season

BANGOR - Anyone who has lived in Maine knows what a unique place it can be. Playwright John Cariani, author of the hugely popular "Almost, Maine" and a native of Presque Isle, understands that as well as anybody. Cariani's latest, "Last Gas," is currently in production at the Penobscot Theatre.

"Last Gas" is the tale of Nat Paradis (Dave Droxler), proprietor of Paradis' Last Convenient Store up there in Aroostook County. Nat is a man who has fallen into his fate rather than chosen it, managing the store and living above it, along with his father Dwight (Arthur Morison). He also sometimes shares that space with his son Troy (Cameron Wright).

Nat's best friend is Guy (Ben Layman), a near-constant presence in the store. Nat's also forced to deal with the unwanted attentions of his son's resentfully passive-aggressive mother Cherry-Tracy (Jasmine Tracy).

However, when Dwight informs Nat that Lurene (Meghan Malloy) - Nat's high school sweetheart and the woman generally considered to be "the one that got away" - has returned to town for her mother's burial, all sorts of long-buried feelings are forced to the surface. Nat finds himself confronted with a decision: does he try to recapture the relationship of long ago? Or will he make peace with the life he has carved out and the man that he has become?

Cariani has clearly mined his past for aspects of these people to great effect. He has a real sense of the language of the County; that sense shines through in a lot of the interactions between his characters. Their cadences and rhythms ring true. Director Marcie Bramucci has done a fine job of staying true to Cariani's words and vision; she has created a world full of pathos and humor that nevertheless feels true and brings this web of relationships to life.

Droxler brings an engaging awkwardness to his portrayal of Nat; he's a man who's never quite grown into the person that he wanted to be. It creates a vague disconnect that is indicative of a man who is both unsatisfied with his lot and unsure of how to make it better. His constantly-thwarted attempts at closeness with those around him feel honest and real. Malloy's Lurene is a well-executed portrait of a woman who left her home in pursuit of something better, but never quite achieved it. She strikes a balance between the nostalgic happiness and inner turmoil of returning home after a long absence.

Morison brings an old-school gruffness to Dwight that should ring true to anyone with a native Mainer for a father or grandfather. Ireland makes Cherry-Tracy a high-strung busybody who uses her job as a mask for her underlying sadness. Troy's happy-go-luckiness is portrayed sweetly and straightforwardly by Wright.

However, it's Ben Layman's portrayal of Guy that ties everything together. His every moment on the stage is charged with genuine feeling and understanding, both of himself and the people around him. He combines a surface stolidity with occasional glimpses of the sensitivity beneath - it might be the best PTC performance we've seen from the always-excellent actor.

The task of giving the actors a setting in which to work falls to veteran PTC designers Erik Diaz and Shon Causer. Diaz's set design is spot-on; the convenience store he has created looks like any small-town store you might walk into. It's wonderfully functional without sacrificing any verisimilitude - just your typical outstanding work from Diaz. Ditto Causer, who long ago proved his versatility in creating lighting designs that go far beyond just "lights up, lights down;" it's his eye for the subtleties of light that make him so good at what he does.

Anna-Marlies Hunter's costume design strikes just the right note of northern Maine-ness without ever feeling forced or clichd. They don't look like they're wearing costumes - maybe the highest compliment I can pay. In addition, Meredith Perry's prop design fills Diaz's set with the necessary details to take the proceedings to the next level.

Is this a perfect play? No. It's a little on the long side; there are several places where things could be tightened up. However, these moments are relatively few and far between. In "Last Gas," Penobscot Theatre is presenting an engaging portrait of a group of Mainers struggling to come to terms with their feelings about each other and about themselves. It's funny and sad, it's pointed and poignant and it's definitely worth pulling in to fill up the tank.

'Last Gas' will be playing at the Bangor Opera House through Sept. 25. For tickets or more information, call the box office at 942-3333 or visit their website at www.penobscottheatre.org.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 16:12

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