Rickety Rabbit

LTW makes a rare misstep by mishandling classic-comedy 'Harvey'

You see him, don't you? The tall rabbit that Elwood P. Dowd calls Harvey? His friend, his confidant? No? Well, don't beat yourself up about it. Neither can a lot of folks.

Then again, don't go trying to deny his existence just because you can't see him. Or call Elwood crazy for acknowledging his companion with great respect. You just might end up regretting that in a deep-hearted way.

Harvey, Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was written in 1944 and was inspired, according to Chase, both by a dream of a giant rabbit chasing a psychiatrist, and her desire to provide a laugh for a neighbor ground down by a staggering loss in a hideous war. The play is a charming piece, and is perhaps known best to most of us from the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

Live Theatre Workshop opened the show last week for what I'm sure it thought would be a light-hearted summer show for heat-oppressed audiences. Unfortunately, the troupe has managed to suck most of the charm right out of the piece. Although there are a couple of good performances, the production is awkwardly conceived, and as a result, it is even more awkwardly presented. It may bring a few smiles, but it is far from an effectively realized representation of Chase's play.

Harvey gives us the story of the Dowd family, a family well-known and respected in the community. Elwood's sister, Veta (Annette Hillman), and her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Lucille Petty), have returned to live in the family home with Elwood (David Alexander Johnston) after the death of their mother. But more has changed than the passing of the matriarch: Dear Elwood insists he has been befriended by Harvey, a giant white rabbit. However, Harvey is invisible to everyone but Elwood. This, of course, is greatly troublesome to the family's status and will make it harder, if not impossible, for Veta to get Myrtle Mae married well. Elwood's attachment to Harvey is a source of consternation in the community and an embarrassment for the family.

The trouble is, Elwood is an absolute gem of a man. He's kind, considerate, genuinely interested in others, willing to listen to and even befriend people, and always showing great respect. Yes, he does seem overly fond of drinking with friends in taverns and bars, although we never see him impaired. Perhaps Chase included this trait to provide some sort of explanation for Elwood's "hallucination," but it feels like a distraction to today's audiences: We know that even a happy drunk is a person in trouble.

But Elwood does not appear to be a troubled man. Besides, Elwood is perfectly clear about who Harvey is. He's a "pooka," Elwood carefully explains, a mythological creature from Celtic lore, a fairy spirit in animal form, capricious, mischievous and wise. For some reason, one has appeared to Elwood, and Elwood has embraced him. And from what we see, Harvey provides a healthy dimension to Elwood's life, in stark contrast to what we see happening in the lives of all around him.

Vera decides to have Elwood committed to a mental institution, where, of course, folks seem a hundred times crazier than Elwood. As a distraught Vera tries to explain to the intake psychiatrist (Cliff Madison) the conundrum of Elwood and his imaginary friend, the psychiatrist thinks that Vera's the one in trouble and mistakenly admits her. The ensuing commotion drives the comedy, including the chief psychiatrist (Lawrence Fuller) having a run-in with—you guessed it—Harvey.

Director Stephen Frankenfield and his crew allow us to get the story. But a hint of why the story should be told, and the choices of style and focus, and the clarity and crispness of characterizations needed to support an informing vision, are absent. We're not talking about weight or depth—it is unquestionably a comedy—but the inherent substance and the nuance that makes the play funny need to be regarded and allowed to unfold scene by tightly executed scene. It takes great skill to create the thoughtful sweetness of Harvey, and there is little such skill demonstrated here.

There are a couple of bright spots. Hillman as Veta displays a perfect balance of concern for her status in the community and genuine concern and love for Elwood. And she does it in an utterly hilarious fashion. Hillman has been absent as an actress from Tucson stages for several years. Let's hope she is inclined to seek more roles to which she can lend her considerable talents.

Johnston, too, brings considerable skill to his creation of a man who has made a decision to be "pleasant" rather than "right." However Elwood has come to embrace his misfit role, he has done so whole-heartedly and gracefully, and thus injects much more good will into the world than the others gripping so tightly to what seems normal and sane. We see this sincerely and lovingly embodied in Johnston's portrayal.

In the end, the characters are confronted with a choice about what to do with Elwood. Should they allow medical interference to make Elwood "normal," or can they embrace him as he is? Perhaps here is where the elegance of Chase's humorous tale lies.

But there is nothing elegant in the way her story unfolds at LTW. The production feels rickety and slap-dash, full of actors who don't have a grip on how they need to work together to tell the story—all of which points to inadequate directorial guidance.

We expect more from Live Theatre Workshop.

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