Who’s to say what “crazy” means? And is it really crazy to have a special friend that most people can’t see? Maybe it just takes a good imagination to see a special friend, even if he is a 6-foot-tall white rabbit named Harvey.
You might believe this after seeing Mary Chase’s play, Harvey, now on stage at Court Theatre, directed by Devon de Mayo. Harvey is that 6-foot-tall white rabbit and he is introduced to us by Elwood P. Dowd, played by Timothy Edward Kane in a warm, genial, slightly off-kilter way. Elwood is everyone’s friend and he’ll be sure to buy you a drink at Charlie’s and introduce you to Harvey. ”I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with,” Elwood says. We learn that Elwood is not the only person who sees Harvey.
Elwood’s sister, Veta (Karen James Wodistch) is a social climber and has marital aspirations for her daughter Myrtle Mae (Sarah Price). Both Veta and Myrtle Mae think Elwood (who owns the family mansion) is ruining their lives. Veta despairs after Elwood arrives unannounced at her society tea and introduces Harvey to all her guests. She decides Elwood has to be committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Much of the play is set at Chumley’s Rest, where Veta explains to Dr. Sanderson (Erik Hellman) why she wants Elwood committed. “I cannot stand another day of that Harvey. Myrtle and I have to set a place at the table for Harvey. We have to move over on the sofa and make room for Harvey. We have to answer the telephone when Elwood calls Harvey.”
The rest of the play is a series of comic scenes in a case of mistaken insanity. Veta brings Harvey for commitment but the doctors decide it’s Veta herself who should stay at Chumley’s Rest. Elwood, always amenable to whatever is proposed, is happy to visit, as long as Harvey can stay too.
Dr. Chumley, the distinguished psychiatrist (A.C. Smith), meets Harvey too and learns that Harvey can predict the future and sometimes make things happen that no one was expecting. The doctor confesses a wish to Elwood; he hopes that Harvey can arrange it. “I’d go to Akron,” he says. He would spend two weeks drinking cold beer with a beautiful silent woman.
Harvey may seem like a bit of theatrical fluff, and it is a charming, funny play about a man who you would enjoy having a drink with, even if you’re a teetotaler. But Harvey has its serious sides too. It reminds us of how mental patients used to be treated (cold baths, strait jackets, injections of mysterious fluids) and that a hallucinatory man (Elwood) is more credible to the hospital powers than a mostly sane woman (Veta).
Harvey is a Pooka, and Elwood takes pains to tell everyone that. In case you are not aware of Harvey’s provenance, Court provides a page in the playbill to describe the Pooka, a mischievous Irish spirit that takes on the shape of familiar animals. W.B. Yeats, who wrote about Pookas in his 1888 book, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, thought the Pooka was the forefather of Shakespeare’s Puck.
Court’s production is marked by excellent performances by Kane as Elwood, Wodistch as Veta, and Smith and Hellman as the two doctors. Amy J. Carle makes the most of the three roles she plays as Aunt Ethel, Betty Chumley and the taxi driver.
Harvey’s scenic design by Courtney O’Neill is staged on two sets that are switched back and forth by a crew dressed as nurses or maids. The sitting room at the Dowd mansion becomes the reception area at Chumley’s Rest. Izumi Inaba’s costume design captures the mid-century spirit, especially for the female characters.
Harvey opened on Broadway in 1944 (it ran for 1,775 performances) and won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. If you’ve seen the 1950 film version starring James Stewart, it’s probably hard to get that out of your head to appreciate a new stage interpretation. Kane’s performance as the amiable, alcoholic, hallucinatory Elwood is certainly reminiscent of Stewart’s rendering. Kane has proved his acting versatility with several Court productions, ranging from silly to horrific. Kane played the leading role in Court’s One Man, Two Guvnors in 2016 and was brilliant as the Poet in An Iliad in 2011 and 2013.
Harvey continues at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., through June 11. Tickets are $48-68 for performances Wednesday-Sunday.