The Dayton Theatre Guild supplies a terrific local premiere of John Cariani’s surprisingly fascinating and engrossing 2010 comedy “Last Gas.”
On the surface, Cariani’s tale, which takes place over the course of roughly 24 hours, is merely a humorous account of small town life in Maine centered on Paradis’ Last Convenient Store, the last place to get what you need from gas to groceries before the Canadian border to the north and the North Maine Woods to the west. The quaint family business is run by Nat Paradis, a huge Red Sox fan particularly proud of his son Troy and appreciative of the friendship he has with childhood buddy Guy Gagnon. Still, something is truly amiss underneath. After all, Nat, hoping to put to rest what’s ailing him psychologically, has been fixated on advertisements promising various forms of relief. He’s trying to “get back to happy,” but has no idea what that means. Even when his high school sweetheart Lurene Legassey Soloway returns home to attend her mother’s funeral, he still feels incomplete and awkward. However, with intriguing, relatable effectiveness, Cariani uncovers the truth behind Nat’s conflicted persona with the clear understanding that loving yourself is paramount in the pursuit of happiness.
As Debra Kent’s wonderfully delicate and honest staging fluidly transpires without one morsel of emotional overkill, Cariani’s world vividly arises thanks to a marvelously authentic sextet. Jared Mola, embracing material which pushes him to a refreshingly new level of vulnerability, splendidly embodies Nat’s doubts and insecurities without falling into a stereotypical trap. Rick Flynn, who has had a banner season at the Guild as an actor and director, astutely underplays as the shy, determined Guy. As Nat’s roughneck dad Dwight, David Williamson conveys the character’s old-school charm and unforgiving ferocity with equal vitality. Angela Dermer, recently seen as the kindly Thelma in the Guild’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” firmly radiates joy, perplexity and regret in her multifaceted portrayal of the bubbly, bruised Lurene. The absolutely delightful Rachel Wilson is an offbeat, Coen brothers-esque standout as incredibly stern forest ranger Cherry-Tracy Pulcifer, Troy’s combative, no-nonsense mother who relishes the chance to use and abuse her authority. Jack Lewis, memorably endearing earlier this season as Peter Van Daan in the Dayton Playhouse’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” is a strong, sensitive presence once more. He’s particularly impactful in Act 2 when introverted Troy unexpectedly opens up to Lurene about his future plans and ongoing familial strife.
Additionally, longtime area scenic designer and Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame member Bruce Brown steps out of retirement to provide an outstanding two-level set, one of the largest in Guild history, complete with back staircase. Brown’s simultaneously large yet intimate design is greatly accented by Deidre Root’s fine assortment of props. Also noteworthy are Margie Strader’s evocative lighting, Kristine Caffrey’s satisfying costumes, dance choreographer Stefanie Pratt’s playful routine for Mola, Dermer and Flynn in Act 2, George Spelvin, Teresa Connair, Joseph Knead, and Barbara Jorgensen’s appealing voiceovers, and K.L. Storer’s hilariously story-specific sound design.
Cariani, raised in Maine, is predominately known in theater circles for his first and widely produced comedy “Almost, Maine,” which also explored themes of love and perception. With unforced, heartfelt potency, “Last Gas” gently resonates as an unexpectedly striking portrait of acceptance and forging a new path.
“Last Gas” continues through June 12 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $13 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org.