Thursday, November 8, 2001
When Mary Chase''s farce, Harvey, opened on Broadway in 1944, it was an immediate hit and went on to run for 1,775 performances. More than mere popular entertainment, however, the play won a Pulitzer Prize, and prompted critic Dorothy Parker to describe the playwright as "the greatest unacclaimed wit in America."
The plot is deceptively simple: Elwood P. Dowd, an independently affluent tippler, has a best friend, Harvey, who''s a "pooka"--a giant, invisible white rabbit. Elwood''s sister Veta and his niece Myrtle Mae, who live with him and are embarrassed by his eccentric behavior, try to have him committed to a sanitarium. But the tables are turned and mayhem breaks out.
Before the play''s happy ending, Veta has been incarcerated in the asylum for a brief period, Elwood and Harvey go missing, and the head of the sanitarium gets to know Harvey on an intimate basis.
The current production of Harvey, the first full production of the Staff Player Repertory Company''s 2001-2002 season, is directed by Marcia Gambrell Hovick. It''s a solid offering that captures all of the play''s laughs, but misses something else.
In ancient Celtic mythology, a pooka was an animal spirit that could take many forms. According to at least some tales, its favorite shape seemed to be a huge black horse with blazing red eyes that would take late-night travelers on a wild ride before depositing them in a ditch, battered and bruised. The legendary Irish king Brian Boru was reportedly the only person who successfully rode the wild creature, exacting a promise from the beast that it would quit its anti-social behavior. Today, in some Irish communities, pookas are honored with special pedestals on gate posts designed to provide a comfortable place for the spirit-critters to sit.
Today''s tame pooka has come a long way from the fierce creature he once was. So, too, with many productions of Harvey.
Buried in Harvey''s apparently simple plot is a remarkably subversive play that calls into question many of society''s underpinnings. In creating Elwood P. Dowd, a protagonist who is unfailingly pleasant at the same time he is unrepentantly devoted to his own version of reality--one that is completely at odds with the expectations of his family, community and authority figures--Chase created a character that presaged the rebellious flower-power ethos of the 1960s by nearly 20 years.
This underlying message of Harvey often gets lost in the myriad high-school and community-theater productions that only manage to mine the play for its wealth of laughter. In this way, the current Staff Players'' production of Harvey is only partially successful in revealing the play''s soul.
As Elwood P. Dowd, Skip Kadish, naturally, gets in the evening''s best lines ("I grappled with reality for 40 years and I''m glad to say I finally overcame it"). Kadish does a nice job delivering an affably inebriated Dowd while also capturing the character''s hidden strength. The performance, however, is somewhat marred by a decision to punctuate many of his lines with a variety of distracting hems and haws. Neva Hahns gets the lion''s share of the evening''s laughter, playing Elwood''s sister Veta in a broad manner approaching slapstick.
Other cast members do solid work, notably Philip Pearce as family friend Judge Gaffney, Jessica Brischke as Nurse Kelly, Jody Gilmore as Dr. Sanderson and Barbara Metz as Mrs. Chumley. But perhaps the evening''s most poignant and telling scene comes from Peter M. Eberhardt, playing Dr. Chumley, the head of the sanitarium.
After having met Harvey in person, Chumley discovers that the pooka has the ability to make time stand still, making it possible for a person to leave his responsibilities behind while he enjoys a respite from his burdens. In a conversation with Dowd, Chumley asks if it might be possible for Harvey to stop time so that he can take a two-week trip to a campground just outside Akron, Ohio. While there, all he wants to do is sit under a tree and drink beer while telling his troubles to a beautiful young woman who strokes his brow, whispering, ''You poor thing. You poor, poor thing.''
It''s a simple dream that undercuts the pomp of Chumley''s authority, and Eberhardt does a very nice job delivering the speech in a way that is touching without being overly sentimental. And in so doing, perhaps Eberhardt reveals Harvey''s true message--that for all the climbing and clawing for position that we do in everyday life, it''s the simple things that really mean the most to all of us.