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Stageworks’ Harold & Maude Is a Winner, with Lots of Laughs, Tender Moments, and Insights

In 1971, Paramount Pictures released the film version of Harold and Maude (directed by Hal Ashby), based on the screenplay by Colin Higgins (1941-88), who also published the work as a novel in 1971. In 1974, Higgins adapted the story as a play, Harold & Maude, which Stageworks Theatre of Holly Springs is producing, under Kelley Hunter Stansell’s direction, on June 6-8 at the Holly Springs Cultural Center and on June 13-15 at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center.

The play deals with the serious issue of suicide, but it evokes peals of laughter, practically nonstop. It features an off-beat coming-of-age story for the characters as well as a coming-to-terms-with-life narrative.

The Play:

Nineteen-year-old Harold Chasen (played by Luie Roman) lives with his self-absorbed mother, Mrs. Chasen (Ann Forsthoefel). Bored, attention-starved, and world-weary, Harold amuses himself by staging fake suicide attempts (15 thus far) and by going to demolitions, to junkyards, and to funerals of people he does not know.

At one such funeral, he chances to meet 79-year-old Maude (Mia Peters), who also finds pleasure in attending the funerals of strangers. She is obsessed with living life (on her own terms) to the fullest. We eventually learn from Maude that she been an Austrian countess, that she has travelled extensively, that she had lost her husband in “the war,” and that she had spent time in a concentration camp in which her closest friend died in her arms.

Their friendship blooms as Maude enlists Harold’s aid in transplanting a young tree that she had removed (without permission) from downtown, making use of a car that she had borrowed (without permission) from their common acquaintance, Father Finnegan (Craig Ashby). She takes him home with her where he meets her pet seal (a character who figures into the plot later), witnesses her unique way of feeding the birds, and begins to become intrigued by her carpe diem philosophies. Drinking champagne and smoking from a hookah are both okay, it seems, because “it’s organic.”

Harold is caught off-guard as she expresses such off-beat sentiments as “It’s best not to be too moral — it cheats you out of life” and “I can never understand someone refusing an experience.” And he seems to embrace her exhortation to “Try something new.”

The Players (and this play is definitely well-cast) :

Luie Roman is nothing short of ideal as Harold. Stoically masking his inner pain, this Harold has the appropriate facial expression for every turn. He keeps up a stone-faced façade for his mother and others to whom he wishes to appear diabolically aloof. However, we are able to see flashes of actual emotions as he is caught off-guard by Maude and by his mother. AND: Do we see a twinkle in Harold’s eye as he plans upcoming schemes?

Mia Peters manages to accomplish a very daunting task — she must look and act like a person who, while much older than Peters herself, looks and acts substantially younger than her (the character’s) chronological age. Maude’s New Age philosophical observations and musings sound very convincing as they come out of Peters’ mouth. And we can read it in her eyes — Maude is not preaching; she is simply saying what she thinks and feels.

Ann Forsthoefel is delightful as the cluelessly self-absorbed Mrs. Chasen. She does not see anything wrong with the idea of her arranging computer club dates for Harold and cannot imagine why he would. For that matter, Forsthoefel creates the impression that this character would be taken seriously aback if anyone ever even suggested that she were not the center of the universe.

Easily the strongest performer of the supporting cast, Michelle Corbitt is “a scream” as Marie, the Chasen’s newly hired maid. How close did that character come to having a pair of heart attacks in the first scene? Her horrified reactions to Harold’s shenanigans underscore just how calloused to (and insulated from) them Mrs. Chasen has become.

Director Kelly Stansell infuses additional humor into other supporting roles by directing the actors to perform as “types.” For instance, Craig Ashby’s Father Finnegan is “the well-intentioned but rather myopic priest.” As Dr. Matthews, Michelle Ouimet does a good job of delivering “the ever-optimistic psychiatrist who is surprised by nothing.” Joe McLaughlin presents Lieutenant Bernard as “the determined police officer who puts the public good above all other considerations.” And Sonia Usatch-Kuhn is definitely “all business” as the Head Gardener.

Similarly, Harold’s “dates” — Stephanie Desmarteau (as Sylvie), DeAnna Giovacchini (as Nancy), and Tori Shue (as Sunshine) — represent types that one would encounter in the early years of computer dating. Each of them performs an entertaining exaggeration, Shue’s Sunshine is a tour de force that has the power to “knock you off your feet.”

But it is Tina Best Early who truly takes over-the-top acting, well, “over the top” in her two roles: Gardener and Sgt. Doppel. Prepare, literally, to “guffaw” as (especially) Sgt. Doppel’s antics approach the level of cartoonishness.

The Tech:

All productions values are good, but I was most impressed by the work of Ali Lewis (“queen of all things props”) and Maggie Cook (costume coordinator).

Lewis must have invaded “Weapons ‘R’ Us” as she scrounged for all of the “toys” that Harold uses, and she certainly furnished Maude’s living room with the expected eclectic eccentricity.

All costumes were definitely character-specific, and Cook’s choice to have Mrs. Chasen appear in a different dress for every scene was a definite winner — exactly what we would expect from the character. Likewise, the various outfits chosen for Maude come as no surprise. And the gradual morphing of Harold’s choice of clothes reflects the transitions in his character.

From the Department of Picky-Picky:

Craig Ashby’s accent is definitely authentic, but I would expect a character named Father Finnegan to be Irish rather than Scottish.

It is a bit distracting that the hookah does not need to be lit before Maude and Harold toke on it.

The Verdict:

This show is a winner! Laughs, tender moments, insights into “the human condition,” sight gags, visual delights — Harold and Maude has it all.

Optional Afterword (for those who have a few more minutes):

Lamenting the limitations of his contemporary stage, Shakespeare begins Henry V with a prologue spoken to the audience:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Similarly, Thursday night (June 6th), Stageworks Theatre’s production of Colin Higgins’ Harold and Maude begins with an address to the audience; this is a welcome from director Kelly Stansell, which includes an apology for a shortcoming of the small stage at Holly Springs Cultural Center. The stage is too narrow, she tells us, to accommodate sets for multiple locations. Consequently, we are warned, they will need to close the curtain in order to perform between-scenes set changes (which may take a few minutes each time).

A drawback? No. Post-scene applause lasts several seconds, and mood-appropriate music plays while the curtains are drawn and the house is dark. My advice: attend this play with someone with whom you enjoy spending time in the dark — problem solved.

SECOND OPINION: June 5th Hillsborough, NC WHUP/104.7 FM podcast preview, hosted by Wayne Leonard for “Lights Up!”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-6-5-19-permanent-archive/.

The Stageworks Theatre of Holly Springs presents HAROLD & MAUDE at 7:30 p.m. June 8 at the Holly Springs Cultural Center, 300 W Ballentine St, Holly Springs, North Carolina 27540; and at 7:30 p.m. June 13-15 at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center:, 123 E. Vance St., Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina 27526.

TICKETS: $14 ($12 students and seniors), except $10 per person for groups or season-ticket subscribers.

BOX OFFICE:

Holly Springs: 919-567-4000 or http://www.hollyspringsnc.us/Calendar.aspx?EID=2781.

INFORMATION: 919-567-4000 or StageworksTheatreNC@gmail.com.

Fuquay-Varina: 919-552-1400, info@fvarts.org, or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=fvac.

SHOW: https://www.hollyspringsnc.us/1412/Harold-and-Maude, http://www.hollyspringsnc.us/Calendar.aspx?EID=2780, and https://www.facebook.com/events/425956921571935/.

PRESENTER: https://www.hollyspringsnc.us/1407/Stageworks-Theatre-of-Holly-Springs and https://www.facebook.com/StageworksTheatreofHollySprings/.

VENUES:

Holly Springs Cultural Center: http://www.hollyspringsnc.us/323/Cultural-Center, https://www.facebook.com/hsculturalcenter/, and https://twitter.com/hollyspringscc.

MAP/DIRECTIONS: http://maps.google.com/.

Fuquay-Varina Arts Center: https://www.fuquay-varina.org/907/Arts-Center http://www.facebook.com/Fuquay-VarinaArtsCenter https://twitter.com/FVArts.

MAP/DIRECTIONS: https://www.google.com/maps/.

OTHER LINKS:

Harold and Maude (1971 novel and film): https://www.criterion.com/films/27896-harold-and-maude (Criterion Collection), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/4627/Harold-and-Maude/ (Turner Classic Movies), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067185/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_and_Maude (Wikipedia).

The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Colin Higgins (novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, 1941-88): http://www.colinhiggins.org/ (Colin Higgins Foundation), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/colin-higgins-6304 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0383359/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Higgins (Wikipedia).

Harold and Maude: A Play in Two Acts (1974 play): https://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2589/harold-and-maude (Samuel French, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/harold-and-maude-4225 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_and_Maude#Adaptations (Wikipedia).

REVIEWER:

Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews