'Harold and Maude' on Stage Is a Celebration of Optimism

The love-filled encounter between a woman of 80 and an adolescent who is flirting with death – plus an opportunity to see a superb and marvelously human actress.

Tom Avni and Liat Goren, as Harold and Maude, sit on a dock with a picnic basket between them.
Maayan Kaufman

“Harold and Maude” is a play that sprang quite by chance from a screenplay by Colin Higgins for Hal Ashby’s 1971 film of the same name, which became a cult classic. It’s a gift for every theater company that is able to recruit an experienced veteran actress and a young actor with a boyish face. The story is about an eccentric old woman who lives life to the fullest and succeeds, with her youthful zest, in bringing to life (and love) a confused teenager who is convinced that only his death will extract a little love for him from his self-centered mother.

The Be’er Sheva Theater Company and its artistic director, Rafi Niv – who is also the director of this production – have absolutely found the right actors: Tom Avni, who plays Romeo in another production of the Be’er Sheva Theater, and Liat Goren, who in a stage career stretching across four decades hasn’t played Juliet but has created dozens of excellent supporting roles in most of Israel’s theater companies. The interaction between them on the stage, which is really the gist of the play, is wonderful, and prompted this viewer, at least, to ask himself why it is that Liat Goren’s quality in a lead role is only now being discovered.

It has something to do with the lesson that 80-year-old Maude teaches Harold, who enjoys himself trying to commit suicide in order to impress his mother (Shiri Golan in a terrifically off-the-wall comic role). Everyone is unique and special, she tells him, holding a flower in her hand, and the terrible thing in this life is that every unique and special person is treated as though he were “that” – indicating a whole field of flowers.

In her theater career, Goren, who as Maude is certainly unique and special, has also been treated as something of a “that”: a vital actress for every theater company, who will perform every part to perfection. As a result, she is not considered for lead roles – she can do those, too, but some actresses can do only those.

I saw both previous Israeli productions of the play – in 1977 in Be’er Sheva, with Gita Luka as Maude and Doron Tavori as Harold; and the 1995 Beit Lessin Theater version, with Lea Koenig and Dudu Niv. Both actresses were wonderful, each according to her personality. What is special about Liat Goren’s Maude is that she is demonstratively not larger than life, despite the temptation. She is fully human, not celebrating the character’s eccentricity but living it with the naturalness of an eternal girl. The character’s infectious optimism in Goren’s rendition is further underscored when, late in the plot, her rough past, which is very much related to our life here, is revealed. And I as a viewer completely believe that Harold-Avni is in love with her (that’s his charm as an actor, not extroverted, but coordinated with her). I want only the best for them, however impossible that is.

The production is professional and polished, maneuvering appropriately between the comedy of the exaggerated habits in Harold’s home and the moments of natural humanity of Maude, in her trailer. The sets, by Eran Atzmon, switch with the proper theatricality, and the costumes, by Svetlana Berger, shape characters and create an atmosphere in colors. The video work, by Yoav Cohen and Adam Levinson, functions as an accompaniment of landscape and atmosphere, as effects of a staged death and also as a series of Rorschach inkblots, perhaps in order to say that your life is what you find in it.

It’s true that some of the male supporting actors do not possess the quality of the leads (the actress Inbar Danon revels in three amusing bit parts), but that’s really of no consequence. This finely wrought production is a celebration of optimism, love of life and the viewer’s exquisite pleasure at watching a performance by a natural, human, special actress: Liat Goren.

The next performances of “Harold and Maude” are on Dec. 21 (at the Gesher Theater in Jaffa) and on Dec. 30, Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 in Be’er Sheva