The first line of Kodachrome is "I have loved." It's spoken by the play's mysterious heroine, a woman known simply as "the Photographer" (Lena Kaminsky), and it marks the first of many times she will speak directly to the audience, as if inviting you into the story's vortex of sweetness, sadness and wit.
It's a fitting beginning for a play that is essentially a living photo album of romances, but it's also deceptive. Kodachrome—written by Adam Szymkowicz and having its world premiere at Portland Center Stage—may be an ensemble love story, but it is also a mischievous comedy and a supernatural dream.
Kodachrome's many genre fragments don't always cohere. Yet thanks to sumptuous scenic design and a paralyzingly realistic performance by Kaminsky, the play transports you to a world brought to vivid life by Rose Riordan's imaginative and impassioned direction.
The play is set in Colchester, Conn., the cozy New England town where the Photographer lives. She is our tour guide, a narrator who leads us to Colchester's modest landmarks, from a lonely public library to a restaurant called Harry's Place. She draws our attention to a variety of romantic vignettes, which include a goofy tale of a perfume maker (John D. Haggerty) lusting after an apathetic waitress (Tina Chilip) and a moody subplot about a hardware store-owning widower (Ryan Vincent Anderson) tormented by his resurgent longing for his high school girlfriend.
The Photographer is enmeshed in a tormented love affair of her own, but her greatest romance is with Colchester itself. Riordan and her gifted crew make the town palpably alluring. Even a graveyard, complemented by projected silhouettes of gracefully twisted tree branches, is suffused with poetic grandeur. A swirl of lights and the sound of Peter Gabriel belting out "In Your Eyes" instantly teleports you to a tender, slow dance at a prom.
What Kodachrome can't do is overcome some occasional passages of grating dialogue. Scenes that should have been played straight—like a daughter discovering that her parents are getting divorced and the widower's encounter with an eccentric gravedigger—are milked for jokes that feel intrusive in a story that cries out for more sincerity. Equally problematic is the homogeneity of the play's love stories, many of which cling to a tired trope: the shy outcast fretting over the inability to master the art of flirting in complete sentences.
But none of that detracts from Kodachrome's entrancing images or Kaminsky's boundless charisma. Even after the Photographer is revealed to be the linchpin of a fantastical plot twist involving ghosts, what you remember most are her fourth-wall-breaking interactions with the audience. When she announces at one point that she has become so overwhelmed with traumatic memories that she needs to exit the scene, Kaminsky makes her pain feel so present that you wonder if she's isn't acting.
It's an illusion, of course. But the intimacy that Kodachrome invites you to share with the citizens of Colchester feels entirely real. When the Photographer turns her camera to the audience in a late scene, it's a poignant reminder that just as the people of Colchester are bound together because they have lived and loved in the same place, everyone in the audience has shared an imperfect but transcendent journey.
SEE IT: Kodachrome is at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, noon Thursday, through March 18. $25-$42.