KPBS AIRDATE: June 1, 1994
Harvey is a pooka. You know what a “pooka” is? It’s a hobgoblin of Irish minds, a mythical Welsh prankster, usually an animal spirit. And what about playwright Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey? Well, he definitely qualifies as an animal: he’s a chunky, six-foot tall rabbit. And he can be impish. But mostly, he’s a constant companion and drinking buddy of Elwood P. Dowd, who’s primarily the only one who can see Harvey.
The 1944 comedy/fantasy was originally called “The Pooka” and then “The White Rabbit” before Chase settled on just plain “Harvey.” After its long, highly touted run on Broadway, it was made into a Jimmy Stewart movie and has continued to be revived on stage and television ever since. Its latest incarnation, imported in toto from the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is now at the La Jolla Playhouse, to mark the play’s fiftieth anniversary.
In some ways it’s dated, and in other ways, timeless. The real world of the play is a wearying one: the world of teas, parlors and society editors which has spawned Elwood’s sister Veta Louise and Myrtle Mae, the daughter she is trying to introduce to society — for the purpose of profitable marriage. Elwood, of course, and his, um… friend, are a great embarrassment to the family. When the women-folk have had it with Elwood and his various — real and imagined — drinking buddies, they conspire to put him away in a nuthouse, something called Chumley’s Rest, which strong-arms its patients and injects them with something called Formula 977. Well, there’s the usual series of mix-ups and wrong patients treated, and last-minute saves from doctors who are crazier than their charges.
But what remains charming through the years is the fantasy world that “Harvey” creates, and the message behind the illusion. Elwood is a hero because he is proud to have “wrestled with reality… and won out over it.” He is a gentleman in a world of curs, a sweet, gracious man who recommends being pleasant over being smart. But, if he takes the fateful medicine the clinic has poised over him, he will become, his sister is told by a cabbie, “a perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are!”
You might think that Harvey’s invisibility is a one-laugh evening, a 2 1/2 hour episode of “Topper.” With two intermissions, it is long, but we never tire of that door-swinging illusion, and at the end, Harvey gets the most enthusiastic curtain call of all. Actually, long ago, in one pre-Broadway tryout, an actor in a rabbit costume played the title role one night. It was a disaster. The play hinges on the big boy’s intangibility. Nothing really profound, but it’s sweet and pleasant, just like Elwood. It won’t keep you up all night with compelling debate. But it’s lovely to look at, beautifully crafted and designed.
Director Douglas Hughes, Acting Artistic Director at Seattle Rep, has honed and fine tuned the piece, downplaying the possible alcoholism of Elwood and Harvey, highlighting the banter between the young psychiatrist and the young nurse, but also allowing for a much nastier niece and an over-the-top, caricaturish set of secondary players, especially the hospital henchman, who acts like some kind of crazed Neanderthal, and the judge, who seems like he stumbled in out of a Deputy Dawg cartoon.
But Jeff Weiss is a totally lovable Elwood, with a smiley face and sad eyes. As his sister, Marianne Owen is delightfully neurotic, and Christopher Evan Welch brings real sparkle to the rather colorless Dr. Sanderson. The production is first-rate, even if that jaw-dropping set-change from detailed drawing room to skylighted, sterile clinic has to happen twice. If you like revivals, or highly polished productions, or if you yourself have grappled with fantasy and reality, you’ll want to see Harvey — just like Elwood does.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.