It's not often that a main character dies more than five times during the course of a story. Or that a young man proposes to an 80-year-old woman. But Harold & Maude at Playcrafters Barn Theatre combines this unusual story with exceptional acting and achieves two hours of genuine laughter, and an appreciation for life and art. Colin Higgins' play is a lighthearted piece in which the lead characters come to terms with death and love.

Harold's mother attempts to find her 20-year-old son a suitable wife through a computer dating service, though he shows his appreciation by pretending to kill himself with a cleaver. After an appointment with a psychiatrist, Harold meets Maude, a vivacious old woman with more spirit than a cheerleading squad. The two discover a similar interest in attending funerals, and develop a friendship, which eventually becomes a loving relationship.

Although audiences are supposed to laugh at Harold's limb-chopping antics, there is also an element of seriousness that underlies the comedy. Death, as Maude tells Harold, is just a part of life that every person has to accept. For Harold, that acceptance comes through Maude's free-spirited lifestyle. "Try something new everyday," she says, as they drink champagne, do somersaults, waltz, and sing songs.

As Harold develops from a noose-wearing, pessimistic young man to a compassionate, music-loving adult, he acquires a mature sense of separating the real world from the imaginary one in which his own "death" occurs every day. Experiencing this change of heart is one of the most rewarding elements of Harold & Maude, because for those few hours in the theatre, life for everyone becomes a little more fragile, a little more valuable.

Michael Braddy plays Harold Chasen with the appropriate level of emotional attachment to Maude and his mother. Though Braddy occasionally seems to notice his audience, his ability to fake his own death (numerous times), play the guitar, swoon over Maude, and humorously reject all three computer girls gives his character the appropriate range. His serious and downtrodden opinions play beautifully against Maude's spunky, intelligent outlook on life.

Peggy Hanske's portrayal of the spiritual, adventurous Maude is glorious. From headstands to quoting Confucius, Hanske invites the audience to feel compassion toward her and rejoice with her in the beauty of life. She interacts with charm and wit, especially with Harold, whom she mentors into appreciating art, nature, and love. Her innocent reactions combined with her experience as a world traveler make Maude a delightful character - a person one would like to befriend.

Susan Perrin-Sallak is hilariously superficial as Harold's gossipy mother who desperately tries to find him a wife. The scene in which she meets Maude is very funny, and her funky hairstyle and polyester suits are worth the admission price.

Other characters contribute humor to the plot, including the three computer-dating-service girls, the maid, and the gardeners/inspectors. Andrea Drish, Mackenzie Jackson, and Shara Verstraete play the energetic candidates for Harold to marry, and while their interactions with Mrs. Chasen are effective, their reactions to Harold's false suicide attempts are priceless. Lona Frideman, Dana Moss-Peterson, and Spiro Bruskas overact to get positive reactions from the audience, while Jim Seward achieves an honest, unforced performance as Father Finnegan.

Technically, set designer Gary Baker uses the thrust stage space well. The staging at times causes problems, though, when the direction has the actors' backs to the audience. Selective lighting widens the stage into the four different settings, which effectively cuts down on time for scene changes.

Though the play is mostly light-hearted, the lovemaking scene between Harold and Maude causes some discomfort, as the age difference between the characters becomes awkwardly evident for the audience.

Overall though, Playcrafters has created a wonderful performance of this comedy. And even better, within the humor is sincere advice about the way life should be lived. Harold & Maude not only gives audiences 22 scenes of laugh-worthy material, but a reminder to appreciate the beauty of life around us.

Harold & Maude continues with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For ticket reservations, call 762-0330.

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