Happiness — that elusive, ephemeral state so often framed like a place to arrive at rather than a way of traveling. In its pursuit we are sold every variety of magic beans and, while it is clear that no one can be happy all the time, we still often feel like we're doing something wrong when we can't find and maintain it.
Last Gas by John Cariani tells the story of Nat Paradis, the owner of a small store in far northern Maine that provides the last chance to refuel between far and farther. It's the kind of place where it's easy to stay put; everyone knows everybody and life contains few surprises. Running the family business and still living with his dad in the home he grew up in, Nat's in a rut he's not even fully aware of. The unexpected return of an old flame shakes everything up as all involved begin to reassess the paths they've taken on their own journeys to find happiness. Suddenly, hard decisions must be made about whether to keep on straight or risk a detour on the scenic route. Last Gas is by no means a typical romantic comedy, though it is all about love and full of laughs. In not following a formula, it presents a story that is particularly touching and true to life. It is both hopeful and heart wrenching and, though it leaves more than one question unanswered, it does not in any way leave the audience unsatisfied.
The witty and tender script is presented by a well-balanced cast. The ensemble handles the quick and plentiful dialogue with ease, and a number of the performers are in roles that provide opportunities to show off their full ranges and abilities. As main character Nat, actor Steven Carter is relatable and endearing in his sweet and sad portrayal. As his best friend Guy, Jeremy Webb presents one of his best performances; he has crafted a truly lovable role that shines with sincerity. Both roles require a vulnerability that the actors are not afraid to dive into. Actress Greta Turney provides the most laughs of the production as Cherry-Tracy, local ranger worthy of her own sketch comedy show as she flexes her power gratuitously, issuing citations to her friends and neighbors. The cast is uniformly strong, the characters each real and unique. Overall, it is a skilled presentation of an engaging story.
In the intimate space of Redwood Curtain's theater, scenic designer Daniel Nyiri has not so much built a set as he has managed to create a world. With an efficient use of the stage and a painstaking attention to detail, Paradis' Last Convenient Store comes to life. With the assistance of sound by Jon Turney and lighting by Liz Uhazy, the effect extends beyond the boundaries of the stage; as characters exit to drive away unseen you can hear the crunch of tires on gravel and see the sweep of headlights to poignant effect. Even the concessions get in on helping the audience to feel as though they've traveled to northern Maine. (No need to be jealous of the actors eating those whoopie pies on stage; you can purchase one of the imported treats for yourself in the lobby.)
With the guidance of director Craig Benson, the cast has crafted a beautiful and moving work that amounts to a modern fairytale in its own quirky way. We can all use a reminder now and then that happiness is real and reachable when we are willing to take risks. This story provides just that. Last Gas continues at Redwood Curtain through Sept. 19 with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and an additional matinee Sunday Sept. 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $10 on Thursdays. For more information, call 443-7688 or visit redwoodcurtain.com.
NCRT presents Rumors by Neil Simon opening Sept. 17 and running through Oct. 10. Come along on a wild romp through classic farce as an upscale New York gathering begins to comically unravel on stage. For more information call, 442-6278 or visit ncrt.net.
Legally Blonde continues at Ferndale Repertory Theatre through Sept. 6, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. A feminist epic it is not, but it certainly makes for a carefree evening out with high-energy song and dance numbers. Tickets are $18 general admission, $16 for students and seniors. For more information, call 786-5483.
Plays in the Park continues its season in Redwood Park with two shows. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (or What You Will) plays Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12. The free family show The Unprincess plays at 2 p.m. and continues on Sundays through Sept. 6.