Patricia Harrelson

Stage 3 Theatre's season opener is a dramedy, a low-key character study,an illuminating example of two talented actors at work.

"Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" has a familiar premise: two characters, who share a troubled history, duke it out through preconceived wrongs and wounds toward revelations and resolution.

The familiarity of playwright Isarel Horovitz's storyline is exactly what allows two first-rate actors - Stephen Daly and Susannah Holland - to shine. With director Van Gordon proficiently pacing the mounting tension, the production delivers what Stage 3 does best: that is, disarm the hearts and minds of their audience.

The setting is Gloucester, Mass., a fishing port and summer tourist destination. The characters are an aging high school teacher in failing health who knows he only has a short time to live - Jacob Brackish - and a widow in her 40s - Kathleen Hogan - who answers his advertisement for a housekeeper.

Daly turns in a splendid performance as the arrogant, taciturn Brackish. Resigned to his fate, Brackish wants to spend his remaining days at home, listening to classical music on the radio. Each time Brackish leans back in his big brown easy chair to listen, Daly displays the full ecstasy of his character's pleasure.

The cantankerous old man is set in his ways, which lends itself to one comical moment after another as the newly hired housekeeper - coarse, clumsy and nervous -invades his space. Some of Daly's best moments are those when Brackish tries to converse with Hogan, his ineptness ripe with egotism and pedantic airs.

Susannah Holland, as Hogan, is "wicked" hilarious in a plastic rain babushka dripping water on Brackish's floors and wielding an iron, ironing board and piles of white shirts with passive-aggressive reverberation. Holland's expressive range conveys everything from hurt to malice with a plasticity of face and a droll accent.

The script's laughs derive from the oil-and-water personalities of Brackish and Hogan, which Horowitz has crafted into one sit-com-like nugget after another.

Likewise, many tricky turns and plot twists evolve from the context of an ailing man, used to dominance, under the care of woman who has a grudge against him. They bicker, things get nasty, and the two disassemble explosively but finally regroup tenderly.

Although only the two actors appear on stage, a third presence - that of classical disc jockey Byron Weld - is important to the plot development. Weld's voice, heard before the lights come up, occupies a felt space throughout the play, increasingly offering a disconcertingly grave note to the stage action.

Catherine Gordon's sound compilation and Matt Leamy's sound and lighting direction are integral to the performance and handsomely accomplished.

The entire production takes place in Brackish's mid-19th century home on a beautifully designed set by Ron Cotnam that includes a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and hallway. From the framed pictures on the wall to the 1950s era turntable to a roasting pan for bleaching Brackish's white shirts, the set and props ground the characters and the audience in a homey setting alive with humanity.

Diana Newington's costumes are also homey and convey her typical subtly attention to the nuances of color. Holland is dressed in drab browns and mustard yellows, for instance, which add texture to her character's awkward stumbling and deep-felt malice. Another well-done costume element are big fluffy towels around the necks and over the heads of Holland and Daly when their characters succumb to colds. The towels imbue the scenes with gentle care-taking, a quality these bitter, crusty characters are hard-pressed to access.

One of the most effective aspects of the script is the way Horowitz addresses the transference that occurs between instructor and student. There can be joy and sorrow on both sides, and the manner in which Brackish and Hogan muddle through this mess is at the heart of the play.

While critics might fault Horowitz's play as formulaic or contrived, the audience leaving the theater was clearly susceptible to the hilarity and sentiment of "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard." Mike and Helena Lundgren stayed for the performance after their daughters, Hanna and Sofia, performed the pre-show entertainment, singing all original work. As he left the theater, Mike said, "It got pretty intense, but it turned out really sweet."

Comical aspects of the play aside, Lundgren had succumbed to the skill of actors Holland and Daly who probed the depths of these confrontational characters to leave us with tender, fervent hope.

"Park Your Car in Harvard Yard" plays through March 23. For tickets, call 536-1778.