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"Almost, Maine" has been a favorite of community theater groups for years. Its series of vignettes about love are clever, humorous and poignant, plus they are fairly easy to stage.

But while every version of the show I've seen has been enjoyable, I see how with some expert direction the many ideas about love can be conveyed even more effectively.

Waukesha Civic Theatre's production of "Almost, Maine" was a carefully crafted version that really lifted up playwright John Cariani's thoughts beyond some of the visual metaphors. Director David Kaye did it with a fine cast and nuanced performances that brought out the humor, while lighting and simple, thoughtful set design enhanced the themes.

A strong connection

From the opening with Pete (Jim Donaldson) and Ginette (Jordyn Stewart) sitting on a bench, exchanging awkward glances and long pauses before professing their love for each other, the audience can feel the connection. It is small gestures – like when Stewart's Ginette deflates when Pete doesn't immediately return her statement of love, and fills up when he finally does. This scene bookended the two acts of the play, each act having four scenes depicting a different aspect of love.

There are scenes that in past shows I've seen fell flat, but in Kaye's hands seem to find new life and meaning, such as "The Story of Hope." In the scene, Stewart's Hope tries to regain a lost love from years before. Jim Donaldson's body language, and the spare lines he delivers, are pivotal to the scene. The tone is perfect when Hope declares, "You're so small," to which Pete replies, "I lost a lot of Hope." Also effective is the spotlight focusing on Hope for just an instant to end the scene on the right note.

It is hard to pick favorite scenes since they were all done so well on opening night. I've seen the "They Fell" scene, featuring two drinking buddies (Tyler Peters and Donaldson) who realize they are falling in love, turn into slapstick. But these two had just the right emotional pitch, still keeping a good dose of comedy.

Many scenes contained Cariani's penchant for clever visuals of metaphors for various aspects of love, such as the broken heart Glory (Carrie Gray) carries with her in the "Her Heart" scene with Peters. Gray created several empathetic, memorable characters in other scenes as well, such as the woman who meets the emotionally bankrupt man (Donaldson) in "This Hurts" and with a simple kind gesture brings back his ability to feel, as well as the married woman who is falling out of love with her husband (Dustin Nolan) in "Where It Went."

Another charming visual is in the "Getting It Back" scene, in which Gayle (Katie Thompson) literally brings back all the love her boyfriend (Nolan) has given her over the years of their relationship, carting in armloads of red bags. But when she asks for her love back, the results are surprising and heartwarming, with just the right touch at the end to highlight Gayle's final thoughts.

Nolan and Thompson also pair up wonderfully in perhaps the funniest scene of the show, "Seeing The Thing," in which Dave tries to get his longtime girlfriend Rhonda to see that she is more than just a friend by painting her a picture. The two have just come back from snowmobiling in more layers than an onion and watching them peel those layers off is a hoot.

Nolan also is featured in the "Sad and Glad" scene with Stewart and Thompson, but I thought his Jimmy character a bit too caffeinated. Again, some good solid visuals here, with the tattoo clear to the last row in the theater.

A fine setting

The show is set in Almost, Maine, a fictional place in which townsfolk work at the lumber mill and hang out at The Moose Paddy. If you listen carefully, you'll hear the names of characters that have appeared in other scenes.

While this show utilizes a spare set, each piece has to serve a purpose, and lighting and timing are key to conveying the right emotional pitch, such as when a shoe drops in one scene, with just a moment's pause, to the darkened set. It was just right during the production I saw.

For many of those details, Andrew Suggitt, who served as master carpenter, scenic designer and lighting designer, deserves credit.

But most of the credit goes to the cast who, under Kaye's guidance, execute all of the charming bits wonderfully, eliciting lots of laughs and wringing out emotions to the very end, which brought a collective sigh from the audience.

If you go

Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre

What: "Almost, Maine"

When:Through Feb. 21

Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha

Tickets/Info:(262) 547-0708, www.waukeshacivictheatre.org.

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