2012-04-13 / Dining & Entertainment
‘Harvey’ hops happily to High Street
Mary Chase penned the play in 1944 and also wrote the screenplay for the 1950 film starring James Stewart.
This production stays rooted in the 1940s, with authentic hairstyles, clothing and accessories of that era.
The play’s namesake is a 6-foot-tall talking rabbit seen only by Elwood P. Dowd (John Eslick), a genial bachelor who, thanks to a trust fund, does not work but spends his days visiting his friends in bars. He’s an oddball who observes old-fashioned etiquette (he won’t sit while a woman stands), makes friends with everyone and invites strangers to his home for dinner.
Harvey is Elwood’s constant companion. Elwood opens doors for his invisible friend, talks to him out loud and even buys him an extra seat at the theater.
Elwood’s obsession with the rabbit embarrasses his sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Juanita Seavey), and her spinster daughter, Myrtle Mae (Judy Diderrich). Her brother ’s odd behavior thwarts Veta’s goals of mingling with the upper crust and finding a respectable man for her daughter. She’s fed up when Elwood crashes her reception and introduces Harvey to the elite.
Veta tries to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest sanitarium so she can control his wealth and sell the aging family mansion (which is so old the family still uses candlestick telephones) Elwood has lived in his entire life.
A comedy of errors ensues when psychiatrists mistake Veta for the patient. As the sanitarium staff goes searching for Elwood, he cheerfully goes about his business, oblivious to the chaos around him.
The script offers little explanation for how Elwood “sees” Harvey. He calls the rabbit a “pooka,” a Celtic fairy being (although in authentic folklore, pookas can be menacing as well as benevolent). Harvey could be Elwood’s means of coping with the death of his mother or an alcoholic’s hallucination.
Perhaps Harvey is a product of Elwood’s imagination, his way of resisting reality—or maybe the rabbit is a projection of the man’s innate goodness and honesty.
Eslick is an amiable Elwood, always smiling, polite to a fault, ingratiating and upbeat.
Seavey has the more difficult role as the story is actually her character’s journey of change and self-discovery. Seavey is effective as a social snob, protective mother, infuriated victim and frustrated sister. She’s also quite the comedian. Her entrance in Act 2 after returning home from the sanitarium is priceless.
The play is also a sly satire on the psychiatric profession. The two doctors, Sanderson (Andy Justus) and Chumley ( Dale Alpert), toss around unfounded diagnoses and bizarre treatments like softballs.
In one of the funniest scenes, the tables turn and Chumley confesses his deepest secrets to Elwood.
Sanderson and Nurse Kelly (Amy Fram) apparently have an unprofessional romantic jealousy going. Kelly’s role at the sanitarium is more eye candy than nursing.
Diderrich seems a bit out of the age range for the daughter, but she still carries the role well with righteous indignation at “crazy Uncle Elwood.”
Comic kudos go to Alpert as the smug psychiatrist who falls apart under stress and Jim Diderrich as Duane Wilson, the exasperated orderly who relishes manhandling the patients.
Linda Smith and Mike Pratt turn in brief but charming appearances as, respectively, Mrs. Chauvenet, the dithering matron, and E.J. Lofgren, the cab driver with keen observations about human nature.
As is typical among older American plays, “Harvey” is overwritten to fill the three acts. Following on the heels of the high-energy “Hairspray,” this 2½-hour play can seem drawnout in spots.
Ken Rayzor directs the show at a gentle pace with plenty of time to relish the kooky characters and the laugh-out-loud lines. The acting’s good, and the final payoff is worth the wait.
The play has nothing objectionable in it but the talky show might not interest young children.
The theater is at 45 E. High St., Moorpark. The show runs weekends through May 6. For tickets, call (805) 529-8700.