As comedies go, Mary Chase’s “Harvey” is an odd duck indeed. The 1944 Broadway hit (which famously starred Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 movie adaptation) centers on a mild-mannered chap whose best friend is an imaginary rabbit. The plot treats mental illness – and a rather horrifying instance of extremely involuntary commitment – as kooky comedy. In all, it’s a tale of industrial-strength strangeness.
‘Harvey’ Recommended When: Through June 11 Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Tickets: $48 – $68 Info: CourtTheatre.org
In Court Theatre’s production of Chase’s Pulitzer Prize(!)-winning play, director Devon De Mayo pulls off a feat as impressive as any rabbit-in-a-hat trick. For all it’s outsized weirdness, “Harvey” is memorable for its gentle wisdom and genuine funny business. Puzzle if you will over the preposterousness of a script where a woman getting forcibly stripped and chucked into some kind of torturous “hydro-therapy” counts as whacky antics. There’s no denying the profundity laced throughout “Harvey.” Leading man Elwood P. Dowd’s famous quip – “Years ago, my mother used to say to me… ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant” – is just the start of the life-lessons herein.
Wisely, De Mayo doesn’t try to bring “Harvey” into the present. It’s set firmly in the 1940s, a time when psychiatry was often viewed on a par with witch doctoring.
At lights up, we meet Myrtle Mae Simmons (Sarah Price) and her formidable mother Veta Louise (Karen Janes Woditsch). Theirs is a family of substance. As Veta Louise tells the local society columnist, they’ve been pillars of their Rocky Mountain community since her pioneering mother arrived via oxen.
All that respectability, however, is no match for Veta Louise’s brother Elwood (Timothy Edward Kane). He initially seems as sweetly innocuous as freshly baked white bread. Once he introduces his best friend Harvey, the six-foot-tall rabbit, it’s clear Elwood is also a stark raving lunatic. Veta Louise has tried mightily to keep Elwood hidden to keep scandal from raining down on the house. But when Elwood (and Harvey) lay waste to a crucial social gathering, Myrtle Mae and Veta Louise decide they’ve no choice but to lock up Elwood. When Veta Louise arrives at the local asylum, whackiness ensues as the attending psychiatrist decides it’s Veta who is truly nutty.
“Harvey” succeeds in large part because of its uniformly excellent cast. Kane’s Elwood is an unlikely, soft-spoken hero, a quiet but insistent champion of basic human decency. Kane also has comic timing as nimble as – wait for it – a rabbit. It’s no easy task, spending the bulk of a show interacting with someone who isn’t there; Kane makes it seem second-nature. A tip of the hat, a cock of the head, a small sweep of a hand gesture – Kane is a master of small, seemingly offhand moments that add up to an authenticity as solid as the mountains surrounding the treatment facility.
Woditsch’s plummy vocals help make Veta Louise a woman of substance and import – even when she’s bedraggled and half out of her mind. As the buffoonish psychiatrists of the Chumley Institute, A.C. Smith and Erik Hellman make each doctor ingeniously, ridiculously inept in his own unique way. Jacqueline Williams radiates power as the funny Judge Mara Gaffney, a woman who fears no lawsuit so long as she’s taken adequate notes in preparation.
Courtney O’Neill’s marvelous set morphs from the Veta Louise’s gloriously over-sized living room/library to the lobby of the Chumley Institute with the ease of a page turning. The details in both locales are magnificently hilarious: There are at least 10 elaborately taxidermied animals built into the decor, including a bear, which somehow fits in as naturally as a taupe throw pillow. When family friend Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet (Amy J. Carle) shows up, Izumi Inaba’s costume genius is also apparent. Ethel’s battleship of a suit features at least three “dead” animals, including a hat with feathers the size and shape of samurai swords.
In the end, “Harvey” leaves everyone wondering just who the real crazies are. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 40 years,” Elwood notes, “I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” Given Elwood’s unshakable contentment and his ability to make everyone around him absolutely love him, you have to wonder if he isn’t on to something, rabbit or no rabbit.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.