-Theatre Review By Rachel Wooley–
Harvey, now playing at the Vagabond Theatre January 10th through February 9th, is an imaginative tale about Elwood P. Dowd, a well-to-do man whose invisible best friend, Harvey, is a 6’8 ½” pooka that has taken the form of a white rabbit. What is a pooka? And how will Mr. Dowd’s family, especially his society-minded sister, Veta, handle his unusual companion? These and other questions are answered in this fun revival of the classic 1950’s story.
The play opens with Veta (Joan Crooks, who gives the role just the right amount of drama), and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Karina Ferry), hosting a society party in their shared family home while Elwood (magnificently played by Roy Hammond), is out. Veta and Myrtle Mae can’t help ducking away from their guests every few moments to discuss the success of the party, but they’re also afraid that Elwood will come home early and bring Harvey with him. Of course, their fears play out exactly as they imagine: Elwood arrives home from his card game, Harvey in tow, and is pleased to find that Veta and Myrtle Mae have friends over. He sets out at once to introduce Harvey to the society ladies, to the horror of his sister and niece.
For Veta, Elwood’s behavior at the party is the last straw. She decides, with encouragement from Myrtle Mae, to have him committed to an asylum. In a comical twist, however, Veta manages to get herself committed instead while Dr. Sanderson (Chris Cotterman) allows Dowd to go free. The rest home must then correct its mistake, and Dr. Chumley (Phil Gallagher), the head doctor and founder of the home, appears to aid in the search for Elwood. (Phil Gallagher was cast ina last-minute replacement for Chumley due to the original actor’s illness; he gave a masterful performance.)
Chumley successfully locates Elwood – and Harvey. But the doctor’s own sanity is challenged when he discovers that he too can see the white rabbit. Complicating matters further, the doctor learns that Harvey may be able to grant him an unusual sort of reprieve from his overly taxing job.
The Players have built a delightful set to accompany the show. The first act takes place in the fairly intimate setting of the family library. The conversion to the large, open reception area of the Chumley Rest Home for the second act (via some ingenious hinged walls and rotated props) is fun to watch.
Various sub-plots add to the entertainment. Myrtle Mae is at the age where she’s ready to be “turned out” into society and begin courting. Ferry’s range of facial expressions while Veta recounts having her clothes “ripped off” before she was forced into the bathtub at the rest home, is priceless. She’s horrified for her mother but also intrigued and amused by the idea. Then she meets Mr. Wilson (played by Colin Holmes), the rest home worker responsible for Veta’s horrors. Their instant attraction is obvious (and amusing), but masterfully portrayed by the actors so as not to be overstated.
And then there’s the tension between young Dr. Sanderson (Chris Cotterman) and the lovely nurse, Ruth (Amy McQuin). Their attraction to one another is clear, but seems to manifest itself only through arguments and bickering. Cotterman overacts the part a bit here, with exaggerated facial expressions and movements during his interactions with Ruth and Dowd, but will hopefully settle into the role in subsequent shows.
Amid all the chaos, Elwood manages to befriend nearly everyone. He clearly values companionship more than anything else. He hands out his business card in a comically repetitive gesture, taking hospitality to an extreme and inviting new acquaintances out for dinner or drinks immediately upon meeting them. His new friends – from the nurse to Dr. Sanderson to Chumley’s wife – are easily won over by his earnest enthusiasm. Hammond gives Dowd a sort of flighty, fidgety air; his fluttering hands and slightly unkempt appearance (his hair, for example, is always completely mussed when he’s not wearing his hat) make his earnestness seem even more endearing.
Elwood is eager to make others happy, especially Veta. He ultimately lets his sister decide whether he should take the treatment from Dr. Chumley, which may eliminate the problem of Harvey forever. Thus, Veta must choose whether she prefers to rid her brother of his eccentric companion and help him to become “normal,” or to keep him as the kind, pleasant man he already is, eccentricities and all.
Director Sherrionne Brown (who also had a hand in the set design, sound design and props) brought to life a wonderful rendition of the story. The play is a light-hearted reminder of the importance of true companionship. It’s funny, uplifting, and marvelously executed – you’ll start to believe, like Veta, that you’re catching glimpses of Harvey, too – and you’ll be glad for it.