Thoughts & Musings

The Odd Couple

2nd Story’s “Harold & Maude” is a thought-provoking comedy that urges us to remember: “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.”

by Kathleen Troost-Cramer, Newport Mercury
  • 7th July 20167/07/16
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Usually, stage scripts are adapted for film, not the other way around. Seeing “Harold & Maude,” now running at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre with director Kevin Broccoli at the helm, one might think that this alternately zany comedy and solemn meditation on life’s big questions was always destined for the stage.

In fact, though, Colin Higgins initially wrote “Harold & Maude” as his master’s thesis at UCLA, turning the project into a full-length film in 1971 that starred Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in the title roles. Then in the late ’70s, Higgins himself wrote the stage script based on his film.

Morose young Harold Chasen (Evan Kinnane) finds entertainment in frequenting junkyards, attending demolitions, crashing funerals, and staging fake suicides — activities all geared toward decay and finality, an ironic pursuit for a young man who ought to be grabbing life by the proverbial horns. Harold’s father is dead, his socialite mother (Paula Faber) oblivious to her son’s emotional anguish, seeing his mock suicides as insane stunts rather than the pleas for attention they are and believing that the solution to Harold’s morbidity is psychoanalysis, a girlfriend, or even military life.

At a funeral, Harold encounters 79-year-old Maude (Isabel O’Donnell). In stark contrast to Harold, Maude is vivacious and rivals Harold’s own eccentricity. While crashing funerals is “fun” for Harold, Maude does the same thing for a different reason: to see all aspects of “the whole circle of life.” The two hit it off, and soon Maude is enlisting Harold in her escapades, which include stealing a tree from City Hall, releasing a seal from the zoo, and taking the pastor’s car for a joy ride. Later, we learn that even the house in which she lives is not her own.

Most importantly, Maude takes a genuine interest in Harold’s interests, expressing curiosity and admiration at how he stages his “suicides” and telling him that she would love to accompany him on a demolition viewing. After a particularly deep theological conversation with Maude, Harold is so thrilled to find a human connection that he turns a somersault. It’s no wonder that, receiving the attention, affection, and wisdom from Maude he craves but doesn’t receive from his mother, Harold finds himself falling in love with the endearingly batty octogenarian.

Watching Harold’s transformation at the hands of Kinnane is a joy. Kinnane takes his character believably from stiff, withdrawn, mechanical pessimist to nervous, halting, uncertain openness, and finally to (almost literally) soaring spirits and heart-wrenching vulnerability. When a detective (Charles Lafond) investigating the theft of the parish priest’s car asks Harold if he is Maude’s friend, Kinnane’s timing and delivery of the single word, “Yes!” registers Harold’s shock at realizing that he can finally claim real human companionship. It’s a rare kind of moment, at once comic and poignant.

Isabel O’Donnell’s Maude is delightfully matter-of-fact, treating matters such as seal heists, house-squatting, and grand theft auto with the kind of casual flippancy usually associated with discussing one’s hair or wardrobe choices. Yet beneath Maude’s vivacious appearance and behavior simmer tragic depths of soul from heartache and losses endured over eight decades of life. O’Donnell masters that notoriously tricky ground that actors must sometimes tread between energetic resilience and inner suffering.

Topping it all off, the stage chemistry between these two highly skilled actors is nothing short of magic, particularly because this chemistry begins as simple camaraderie at Harold and Maude’s first meeting and develops gradually over the course of the play.

As Mrs. Chasen, Paula Faber delivers an even performance. Unforgettable performances are turned in by F. William Oakes in the role of the parish priest, constantly at a loss as to how to deal charitably yet justly with Maude’s antics and nearly collapsing from apoplexy on learning that Harold wishes to marry Maude; and Valerie Westgate as all three of the very different, equally hysterical “computer dates” arranged by Harold’s mother.

For all its laughs and light-heartedness, there are some heavy themes in this play, centering on the very meaning of life, death, and what it means to be human. At one point, Maude impulsively climbs a tree and Harold reluctantly joins her. Ironically, Harold, who has spent so much time, effort, and energy on faking his own death, is terrified. Only now does he realize that he is, after all, more afraid of dying than he had been of living.

It’s difficult — nay, impossible — to say too much more without giving away the end. Suffice it to say that the finale raises more questions than provides answers, and is quite pertinent in our day when issues surrounding life and death are prominent. 2nd Story’s “Harold & Maude” is a thought-provoking comedy that urges us to remember: “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.”

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