At the Court Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –The Court Theatre isn’t normally the venue for Broadway comedies, usually presenting more weighty dramatic fare. But the Court is concluding its season with a revival of “Harvey,” one of the most commercially successful Broadway shows of the 1940’s. The show not only had a huge stage run, it received the Pulitzer prize for drama, and was adapted into a popular 1950 motion picture starring James Stewart. Whether the play holds up in the new millennium resides in the eye of the beholder.
“Harvey” is basically a one-joke play about a pleasant but offbeat character named Elwood P. Dowd and his companion Harvey, who happens to be a six-foot tall rabbit only Elwood can see. Harvey may be a rabbit but apparently he has all the attributes of a civilized and intelligent human being. The comedy emerges from the misunderstandings and confusions that arise from the impact the invisible rabbit has on a varied group of high strung characters around him.
“Harvey” is really a farce, complete with numerous doors that open and close in the hurly burly of dithering characters coming and going. It’s a silly play that has an underlying social theme should the production choose to emphasize it. The Court staging under Devon De Mayo’s directing emphasizes the broad comic features of Mary Chase’s script. Viewers who decide to elevate the play into social and even philosophical commentary are free to do so. The opening night audience clearly preferred to enjoy “Harvey” for its laughs. The giggles from the viewers were almost continuous as the improbability of an invisible six-foot rabbit unfolded.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The heart of the play is Elwood P. Dowd, a 47-year old bachelor whose companionship with Harvey wreaks havoc with the lives of his sister and niece and by extension with the people at a psychiatric clinic trying to deal with the Harvey problem. Elwood is one of a long line of lovable kooks in American theater who choose to march to a different drummer, making us normal folks seem stuffy and mean spirited by comparison. Turmoil may rage around him, but Elwood moves blithely along, smiling and affable and generous.
Timothy Edward Kane, one of our finest and most versatile actors, plays Elwood. It’s a warm performance but ignores a central fact in Elwood’s character. Elwood may be easy going and lovable but he is also an alcoholic who moves through the play with a tipsy edge. Kane’s performance could have used some of that edge. His Elwood is too bland. A bit of grit would have seasoned the whimsy to advantage.
The supporting cast is varied in its effectiveness. By far the most credible comic acting comes from Karen Janes Wodistch, who plays Elwood’s older sister Veta Louise. Woditsch beautifully captures the frustration of a woman who sees her ditsy brother ruining the social life of the family by making him a laughing stock in their society. She wants to put Elwood away in an asylum to free herself and her niece to lead normal lives, but she also wishes Elwood no harm. The conflict leads to Veta Louise enduring all kinds of off stage indignities as she motors through the action in high dudgeon and confusion.
There is also good work from Sarah Price as Myrtle Mae, the niece who doesn’t share her mother’s conflicted feeling toward Elwood. She just wants her uncle put away to save her embarrassment and remove the barrier to an advantageous marriage. Eric Hellman is good as a young doctor at the psychiatric clinic where much of the mayhem takes place and Jennifer Latimore is fine as the clinic nurse who gets caught up in the uproar and ends up romantically involved with the doctor.
Amy Carle is good in multiple and extravagant roles, including one that allows her to wear a pippin of a wild costume. The news is not so good elsewhere. A. C. Smith is miscast as Dr. Chumley, the owner of the psychiatric clinic. Smith is a tower of strength in intense and commanding roles but the blustering and inane Chumley isn’t a good fit for his style. Jacqueline Williams is assigned the normally male role of a judge and does what she can with a nonsensical character. Andy Nagray is trapped in the distasteful role of the clinic’s resident attendant and thug.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
The play’s core question is whether Harvey is a figment of Elwood’s imagination or a living pookah from Celtic folklore. The original script seems to side with Harvey as an actual presence only Elwood sees. A large portrait is unveiled of Elwood and Harvey that clearly was painted from life. And doors open and close that could only have been accomplished by the individual rabbit. But very little in the Court staging suggests Harvey’s physicality either way.
The production profits from a realistic dual set designed by Courtney O’Neill that replicates both Elwood’s living room and the interior of the clinic. Izumi Inaba designed the costumes and Lee Keenan the sound plan.
Would “Harvey” be a big hit if it opened on Broadway today? Who knows, but I suspect not. The play has been rarely revived (no record of a professional staging exists in Chicagoland theater for the last half century). The play was a good fit for its time and profited enormously from a brilliantly sympathetic performance by Frank Fay as Elwood P. Dowd. Still, its unfamiliarity may work in its favor at the Court. The opening nighters obviously were delighted by the freshness of the play’s premise and as a slice of escapism the show worked for them. And there is something to be said for a fantasy that allows the hero to defeat the real world with his own askew view of life. Playgoers who want to evaluate the comedy for themselves had best hurry. I don’t think we will see another revival of the show for a long time.
“Harvey” gets a rating of 3 stars.
“Harvey” runs through June 11 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $48 to $68. Call 773 753 4472 or visit www.CourtTheatre.org.
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