While the likes of Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit (and perhaps even Monty Python’s blood-drenched killer rabbit sketch) are more widely known, playwright Mary Chase’s Harvey is certainly the most rewarding examination of how an over-six-foot, white-furred pet could change the world: but only for those who are able to see her message.
For its first appearance in the intimate den of the Royal George Theatre, the Shaw Festival’s 49th season has its first, near-unequivocal triumph.
Three cheers to artistic director Jackie Maxwell for including this 1944, er, tail, on the playbill and ensuring that Joseph Ziegler would bring it to life from the director’s chair.
Not surprisingly (given past extraordinarily-creative endeavours), set designer Sue Lepage’s solutions to the transitions between the generously provisioned upper-class library and the reception suite of Chumley’s Rest sanatorium (nothing short of a pharmaceutical jail for the weak-minded amongst us and their “devoted” ken, doing “what’s best” for their beloved even as lawyers for the family arrange consequent Powers of Attorney in their favour …) are first rate. The covey of energetic, white-coated “caregivers” shifting the locations to and fro (accompanied by indeterminate salon music that was at one with the opening off-stage rendition of “I’m Little Buttercup”—everything punctuated by the descent of a singular lamp that drew a chuckle all on its own) was decidedly functional and a subliminal statement on present-day cost overruns in health care.
For the “different” amongst us, the production might well have appeared to be “a day in my life.” For the rest, the observation of a respectable family trying to endure the shame of a “touched” uncle/brother/son might, at first, have drawn more reactions of “been there” than “Oh, am I that judgmental?”
There aren’t enough superlatives available in the confinements of this space to praise Peter Krantz’s portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd. Perhaps not coincidentally (see Maxwell, above—cross-reference below), being a nearing-middle-age man who has no work but spends his days in society (a bevy of bars with Harvey always at his side) much to the disdain of family (they are aware of his apparently invisible animal friend but are horrified when their pals can’t see the four-legged constant companion), the gentle soul faces commitment to an insane asylum so that his relations can travel to a nearby state.
Krantz exudes a wonderful persona of beguiling innocence and street smarts that assure his place in the Summer Festival Hall of Fame (Did we just create something here?).
He is surrounded with seasoned practitioners that both feed off and complement his skill. Sister Veta Louise Simmons has a more-than-able proponent in Mary Haney, whose dour, nuanced delivery is a master class all on its own. Norman Browning’s chins deserve equal recommendation as they wag convincingly with concurrence or abject fear while the renowned psychiatrist (William R. Chumley) gradually begins to see the unthinkable.
Playing Nurse Ruth Kelly, Dina Donnelly is a delight whether trying to have her way with Chumley’s second-in-command Lyman Sanderson (Gray Powell) or demurring to the unbridled affections of Dowd, even as he’s being measured for a permanent straight jacket.
Zarrin Darnell-Martin shows spunk and promise in the role of Myrtle Mae Simmons while Tim Ziegler needs a few more performances to blend the blind loyalty/hot-for-you-babe characteristics as the shrinks’ go-to-guy in the nut house.
Doing double duty at the opening, Donna Belleville was appropriately haughty as Mrs. Chauvenet and delectably damp (any cougar lovers in the crowd?) as Mrs. Chumley.
The audience enjoyed every moment; the time flashed by even as some discovered their prejudices being paraded before them.
Fantastically, a sight gag (seemingly innocuous change purse slight-of-hand) woke up your reporter to that fact that this Harvey had been seen before.
Armed with a most generous piece of carrot cake, JWR caught up with the titular star, burrowing down in his dressing room following the final curtain.
JWR: I couldn’t help noticing that you used the same ‘trick’ to remove then return the change purse that was employed in the 1950 film version with Jimmy Stewart—how old are you in human years?
Harvey: (Blushing so much that both floppy ears turn completely pink.) Got me! I didn’t think there’d be any believers in the audience who’d also seen the film. But since I have the ability to stop time, I applied it to myself decades ago—you’ve no idea how many thousands of children I have!
JWR: Aha! That explains it. Does anyone in the cast actually see you on stage?
Harvey: At first nobody did—and I kept getting stepped on! In an early rehearsal, Peter was working on his lines and had brought a carrot along for “motivation.” Once I started nibbling on it right before his eyes, he finally lost his own disbelief and has seen me ever since. The rest of the cast and crew just think he’s really into the part. How is it than you can also see me—and even in the film!?
JWR: When you spend most of your days sitting in the dark, hoping that something magical will happen on the stage (instead of constantly looking for faults and reluctantly reporting on those), the mind is open to just about anything. Come December, I’ll introduce you to Santa Claus. JWR