After a pivotal year of institutional shakeups, Balagula Theatre has made it across the finish line with its final installment of the season, Harold and Maude, a quirky, dark comedy by Colin Higgins, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1971 film directed by Hal Ashby.
The play, directed by Sherry Jackson Thompson, is lighter and airier than the film and pins its success on pitting the dark, wry humor of the death-obsessed 19-year-old Harold (Alex Maddox) against the bright, radically eccentric, free-spirited humor of 79-year-old Maude (Missy Johnston).
I saw the show twice, first on opening night, when music from the Phoenix Friday event in Phoenix Park wafted into the wings of the Farrish Theater, impeding my ability to fully hear not so much the actors' voices but the silences between them. I returned to see the show for Sunday's matinee, which affirmed something I never fully appreciated: how silences in the theater can be like the white spaces in poems or rests in a musical score.
I emerged from the second show more certain than after the first that the play succeeds largely due to its exploration of the juxtaposition between dark and light, death and life, drab and colorful, young and old. This continual thematic contrast in both the performing and technical elements makes for a compelling, if sometimes imperfect, dramatic inquiry into how our attitudes about life and death determine how fully we are able to experience our humanity.
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Fully experiencing humanity is Maude's forte, and like her fictional counterpart, Missy Johnston deftly, endearingly, enchantingly, conveys an infectious joie de vivre that drives home the play's message of embracing life rather than, in Maude's words, "backing away."
Maddox has a more difficult job in that he can only hint at his character's true nature from beneath the veneer of his monotonous morbidity. In the opening act, Maddox shows glimpses of Alex' inner life via slyly timed smiles and wry smirks that suggest he is having fun the only way he knows how, until Maude teaches him how to open up. Maddox's second-act transformation is made more rewarding because of how far he has come from the opening scene, when he is found hanging by a noose in the living room. Maddox's reinvigoration, punctuated by his shift from drab, gray formal clothes to freewheeling '70s attire, is moving, satisfying, and fun to watch. But I bet he could probably play the second-act contrast even bigger.
Technical elements follow suit in terms of underscoring the thematic contrasts that Thompson highlights in her direction. Costume design by Elizabeth Maines is particularly effective. The formal, gray lines of Lisa Thompson's skirt suit as Harold's meddling mother is a bold foil for Maude's colorful, eccentric clothes, which one can imagine she chooses to please herself and not any social norms. And the scenic projections which contrast the drab interior life of Harold's upbringing with the lush, artful interior life of Maude is cleverly executed.
The show is solid, and it succeeds in the daunting task of claiming an identity entirely unique from the film. Of the two, I prefer the play for its tone and Thompson's interpretation of the material.
However, a few minor shortcomings prevent it from being truly excellent. Becki Jo Tonges' lighting design, for instance, strikes the right notes in bold sequences such as the scene in the forest, or the play's dramatic closing moments. But there are missed opportunities to create more nuance and texture in the staging. For instance, when Harold and Maude are waltzing at the closing moments of the first act, they are center stage and largely in the dark. This feels like one of a few missed opportunities to enhance specific moments with lighting.
Speaking of staging, the scenic design underscores the thematic conflicts, with most of the action taking place in one of two corners: Harold's mother's world and Maude's. While this effectively punctuates the show's themes, that prime center stage real estate occasionally feels a little too vacant. I enjoyed the few moments when Harold's and Maude's worlds symbolically joined in the middle, as they did during the aforementioned waltz.
Overall, Harold and Maude is an entertaining and moving show and is a promising directorial debut by Thompson, whose thematic consistency achieves its purpose but can likely be further refined throughout the run of the show, which continues this weekend.