“Gentle” is a word that doesn’t get much use these days. It doesn’t seem to fit into the frantic culture of our time. Fortunately for us, there was once a writer named Mary Chase, and she created a gently witty play that hasn’t lost one iota of its charm. And also fortunately for us, the folks at the Centenary Stage Company have decided to bring Chase’s wonderful play, Harvey, to its main stage.
Not that Harvey is a relic of a gentler era, though some may recall it that way. It was first produced in 1944, as World War II was winding down. After it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945, it was made into a memorable film in 1950, a time of Cold War anxiety and political upheaval in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Chase created this bon bon of a play which sings of sweetness and kindness in the midst of what occasionally approaches chaos.
The story centers around Elwood P. Dowd, a financially-secure fellow (Steven L. Barron, right) who, he tells us, once considered himself smart. At some point, however, he considered that he had to choose between smart and pleasant. He chose pleasant. Around that time as well, he became acquainted with his constant companion, Harvey, a six-foot-three-and-a-half inch tall white rabbit, visible primarily to Elwood. Harvey is gifted not only with speech (audible also primarily to Elwood) but with foresight, which talent he occasionally shares with Elwood.
Some might also say that Elwood has a drinking problem. Does he partake of the pleasures of the vine? He sure does. But it’s not a problem, at least not for him. Elwood is a happy, sociable guy.
The fly in the ointment is that Elwood (and Harvey) reside in the family homestead with Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae. As the women see it, Elwood and Harvey are a constant embarrassment, preventing them, and especially Myrtle Mae, from pursuing a social life. So they concoct a solution. They will have Elwood committed to a “sanitorium,” called Chumley’s Rest.
Unfortunately, the people who run the facility are not quite, shall we say, pulled together themselves. After observing her high-strung rant about her brother’s peculiarities, a young doctor concludes it is Veta who needs to be committed. And thus in due course, mayhem breaks loose.
This is comedy, and very funny comedy at that. So we know that these involuntary commitments are not going to have serious consequences. They do provoke some hilarious dialogue. Veta believes she has fallen victim to a gang of “white slavers.” She concludes that the rather dopey orderly at Chumley’s Rest, Wilson, is one of the gang, noting that he wears a white uniform. That, she says, “is how they advertise.” (Left: Colleen Smith Wallnau is “Veta” and John Little is “Dr. Chumley”)
By the time it ends, two pair of young lovers seem to be en route to requited romantic attachment, but two questions are in the balance. One is whether Harvey is real. (He is defined as a Pooka, which, we learned from the Internet, is a Celtic fairy spirit in animal form.) Chase never actually commits herself on that question, so we will leave that for you to decide.
The second central question in the play is whether Elwood will go on as he has, being pleasant instead of smart, or will he receive treatment that will make him normal? If you go to see this play, believe me, you will care. And then you will find out the answer. Because I’m not going to spoil it for you.
Carl Wallnau has nicely directed a delightful cast, headed by Steven L. Barron, a superbly sweet and agreeable Elwood, and Colleen Smith Wallnau (both, left), a high-strung Veta Louise. The beautiful and elaborate sets, the library of the Dowd family home and the reception lobby at Chumley’s Rest, were designed by Bob Phillips, with Ed Matthews doing lighting design and Julia Sharp in charge of the costumes. (Right: Erica Knight is “Nurse Kelly” and Steven L. Barron is “Elwood P. Dowd”)
Go see it. I’m that sure you will like it.
Harvey will be performed at the Sitnik Theatre in the Lackland Center in Hackettstown through Oct. 19. For information and tickets, call 908.979.0900 or visit www.centenarystageco.org online.
Photos by Bob Eberle.