Ryan Shams (Dr. Sanderson), David Kelly (Elwood P. Dowd), Ashley Rose Montondo (Nurse Kelly) and Tyson Forbes (Duane Wilson) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Harvey. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The title character in Harvey, which opened this weekend at the Guthrie Theatre, is a six-foot, white invisible rabbit. Mary Chase’s play originally opened on Broadway in 1944 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945. Although it has not been produced frequently in recent years, the story is familiar to many through the 1950 movie starring James Stewart. The play is somewhat dated (see, for example, the sexist attitude of its male characters and its portrayal of mental illness), but Libby Appel’s staging provides the play with both a freshness and precision of timing to create an uproarious and charming experience.
Harvey (the rabbit) is much talked about but never heard or seen. He is the best friend of Elwood P. Dowd (David Kelly), a local eccentric who spends his days playing pinochle and drinking at the local bar with Harvey. According to Elwood, Harvey is a “pooka”: a mischievous creature from mythology who befriends crackpots like Elwood. Indeed, Elwood constantly carries two hats, one for himself and one with two holes at the top for Harvey’s ears. Despite his break with reality, Elwood is an extremely pleasant chap. As Elwood tells the head of the local sanatorium: “You must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
Elwood does not work and he gets by with the funds and the home that his mother left him. Following his mother’s death, his older sister Veta (Sally Wingert) and her grown daughter Myrtle (Sun Mee Chomet) moved into his house. Veta is financially dependent upon Elwood and has dreams of being in high society and finding Myrtle a suitable marriage suitor. But these aspirations are stymied by her brother’s fixation with the invisible Harvey. When Vera hosts a high society party, Elwood unexpectedly shows up and starts introducing Harvey to the guests. Myrtle is beside herself and blames her uncle for her singlehood status. Exasperated at “Harvey” ruining her society party, Veta feels she has no choice but to have Elwood committed. Veta goes to the local sanatorium to begin this process, setting off a series of hilarious mishaps.
Although Elwood is the central character, in this production Sally Wingert steals the show with her overwrought performance of Veta. Wingert does not even need to speak to be the focus of attention, with attention-commanding body language and presence in scenes like her return home from the sanatorium. Wingert’s performance shows both her frustration with and her sisterly love for Elwood. Sun Mee Chomet, as Veta’s daughter Myrtle, also significantly contributes to the humor with her quirky movements and man hungry desires. David Kelly as Elwood is an extremely amicable fellow who makes for a charming drinking companion.
Greta Oglesby has a small but memorable role as a high society family acquaintance who is startled to meet Harvey. Steve Hendrickson as the sanatorium chief, Dr. Chumley, effectively plays a man who becomes unglued when Elwood’s belief in Harvey challenges his own understanding of human psychology.
William Bloodgood’s scenic design provides a classic Victorian living room that has seen better times. Attention-catching set changes occur as the center stage lowers and the wide background revolves to reveal a sterile sanatorium waiting room. Scott W. Edwards’s sound design is marked by 1940s-era music in the scene transitions.
The underlying theme of Harvey is similar to Kaufman and Hart’s 1937 Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can’t Take It With You, which played last year at the Jungle: enjoying life and family is far more important than business or social success. While one may normally exercise caution when approaching a six-foot pooka, Harvey should be enthusiastically embraced for a delightful evening of laughter.
Harvey plays through May 15 at the Guthrie Theater.
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