Politicians who speak out on controversial issues like social security, welfare, and the divide between rich and poor risk re-election and may even commit “political suicide.” But their courage and dedication have captured the imagination of Oscar winning playwright Ernest Thompson, known worldwide for the play and movie "On Golden Pond". Thompson’s docket of four short plays, "Political Suicide", is running now at Pitman’s Freight Room in Laconia and promises theater-goers a full slate of hilarious and touching moments. At one point in the first act, I briefly collapsed with laughter; at the end of the second act, the woman sitting next to me was in tears. “I remember,” she whispered softly.

"Political Suicide" has an ensemble cast of five that includes Thompson who also wrote and directs the show. The three women and two men, all capable and engaging performers, change parts and situations for at least two each of the four short plays. Austine Howard, veteran actress and co-founder of the Little Church Theater in Holderness, is in one play a zealous voting volunteer and in another, a destitute rich matron. In both, she totters between humorous and heartbreaking in portrayals that are believable and polished. Meredith Imbimbo plays two very different roles (a young mother and a vampish trickster) with equal panache and Evan Clinton of Laconia and Pat Langille of Lebanon both rise to the challenge of sharing the stage with Thompson one on one.

Clinton, who has studied acting with Thompson, is commanding on stage. In his alternating roles as an eager young voter and a disillusioned youth, he balances outrage and intensity with considerable flare. Pat Langille is a veteran actress who starred in "Steel Magnolias" last summer at Laconia’s Winnipesauke Theater. She is delightfully comfortable on stage and fully engaged in her splendid characterizations of a cynical volunteer in one venue and in another, the biggest journalist in a very small town. In both Clinton’s and Langille’s performances opposite Thompson, they hold the audience’s attention in equal measure. No small accomplishment in a production in which Ernest Thompson quite simply steals the show.

I am old enough to remember seeing Thompson play Ranger Matt Harper in at least one of the 12 episodes of NBC’s 1974 TV series "Sierra". It actually felt sort of déjà vu to see him bound on stage in his law enforcement uniform at one point in the show. But his comic portrayal in another was wildly unexpected. Completely transforming his appearance through gesture and movement, he is outrageously funny as the director of a welfare office. The audience has the chance to meet the “real” Thompson in his introduction to the show and that short encounter makes the transformation even more surprising and enjoyable.

Before the show the audience hears two songs with lyrics by Thompson and music by Joe Delault. They are beautifully performed by vocalists Samantha Farrell and Christine Oblman but the audience is left wondering how these haunting melodies herald the humorous social commentary that is to follow. More understandable are the variations (mostly sorry and funny) on song and dance (no doubt another political metaphor) that Thompson uses as a unifying thread among the four pieces.

Throughout the show, Thompson’s direction keeps the action moving within a spare stage set that serviceably changes and disappears for each script. After a rollicking first act that burlesques voting rituals, citizen protest, and welfare, the second act features one longer piece, "Rewrite", that more seriously addresses the underlying theme of political suicide. While edged in humor, "Rewrite" puts what we’ve seen in poignant perspective. In a story of political idealism lost and found, Thompson and Langille invite us to reflect on old dreams, current realities, and the persistent possibilities that lie within. The show is billed as “Funnier than the Debates” and just as the recent Republican debates gave us plenty of good reason to laugh, there was something sad about them too. "Political Suicide" is like that. It’s not to be missed.

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