By Daniel Skora
Elwood P. Dowd has a friend named Harvey. The two are inseparable, and, gentleman that he is, Elwood politely introduces him to everyone he meets. The problem is that Harvey is invisible, if he exists at all, and no one but Elwood has ever been able to see him. It’s all a big embarrassment to Elwood’s family. Whenever Elwood introduces his friend, there’s nothing there to be seen. Elwood even opens the door for his friend, orders drinks for him at the bar, and has a second subscription sent to the house so that Elwood will have his own magazine to read. To make matters worse, Harvey isn’t even a person. He’s a six-foot three-and-a-half inch pooka, which is what they call a mischievous spirit in Irish folklore. In Harvey’s case, the pooka exists in the form of a rabbit.
“Harvey” is the current presentation of the Purple Rose Theatre. Playwright Mary Chase’s comedy-with-a-serious-side received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945. The fun stuff still brings out the laughter today. The serious stuff reflects a time when personal identity was becoming an ideal of the American people, and treatment for those with mental issues was handled quite differently than it is today.
Veta Louise Simmons (Michelle Mountain) is trying her best to keep her brother Elwood (Richard McWilliams) away from the afternoon social she is giving for her lady friends. The social is an attempt at making contacts for her daughter Myrtle Mae (Caitlin Cavannaugh), who is having difficulties finding a beau. Though Veta believes Elwood is safely tucked away at his favorite haunt, Charlie’s Bar, he shows up anyway and begins scaring away the ladies as he attempts to introduce them to Harvey.
For Veta, it’s the last straw. She decides to have Elwood admitted to Chumley’s Rest Sanitarium, which will not only remove Elwood from the house and allow Myrtle to have some semblance of a dating life, but also have Elwood declared incompetent, transferong the deed to the house over to Veta. The sanitarium is run by Dr. William Chumley (Hugh McGuire) and staffed by Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Rusty Mewha), nurse Ruth Kelly (Lauren Knox), and the orderly Duane Wilson (David Bendena). But they run their institution with blinders on and something happens as Veta attempts to have Elwood admitted. She is so distraught when talking about her brother’s condition that it’s mistakenly believed she’s the one who needs to be admitted. By the time Chumley’s realizes their mistake, Veta has been disrobed and plopped into a hot therapeutic bath and Elwood has left and is nowhere to be found. Very soon the legal services of retired judge Omar Gaffney (Tom Whalen) will be required to file a lawsuit.
“Harvey” would undoubtedly not have the impact that it did were it not for the 1950 film starring James Stewart as Elwood. The part was a perfect fit for the amiable actor, and it became one of Stewart’s favorite roles, which he reprised for a 1972 television special.
The play resonates well despite its mid 1940’s setting. It’s got romance, albeit a rather one-sided one between Dr. Sanderson and nurse Kelly, and a strange one between Myrtle and Wilson. Played with extreme weirdness by Bandera, Wilson stands out as the best example that Elwood is saner than most of the characters that inhabit the play. The cast is uniformly exceptional with McWilliams’ respectable performance as Elwood P. Dowd good enough to make you forget Mr. Stewart. Others in the cast include Ruth Crawford, Susan Craves, and Larry Peters. Director Guy Sanville has inserted several change-of-scenery interludes that provide enjoyable sidebar entertainments and stress the play’s Irish roots: a harp solo, an Irish melody played with accordion and percussion, a wispy dance accomplished with some fancy footwork, and the Hoola Hoop prowess of Ruth Crawford.
The two basic settings for the play are the library of Dowd’s home and the reception area of Chumley Rest. Both share the same book lined walls of designer Sarah Pearline’s set and change one to the other by way of a sliding panel that replacing the library’s fireplace with the doors of the sanitarium and vice versa.
The costumes, which are apropos to the play’s 1945 setting, are designed by Suzanne Young. (Note the billowing legs of Dr. Sanderson’s zoot suit-era trousers containing enough material for at least two pairs of contemporary ones.) Lighting design is by Noele Stollmack, sound by Brad Phillips. Properties are by Danna Segrest and Angie Kane Ferrante is stage manager for the production.
“Harvey” runs through August 26th. Ticket reservations may be made by calling the Purple Rose box office at 1.734.433.7673 or going online at www.purplerosetheatre.org. The theatre is located at 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Exit at 159 if you’re coming west on I-94.