Photo by Heather Smith / The Aurora Sentinel
Before “Harvey” debuted on Broadway in 1944, playwright Mary Chase agonized over the comedy’s title character.
It didn’t matter that the role was a 6-foot-3 rabbit who remained invisible to the audience during the course of the three-hour comedy. Chase rewrote the show at least 50 times, changing Harvey’s species from a giant parakeet to a giant rabbit in the editing process.
Chase’s keen eye for creative detail still shines in the Spotlight Theatre Company’s capable remount of the comedy now running at the John Hand Theatre. At its core, the story of Harvey and his human best friend — the entirely visible Elwood Dowd — remains compelling, despite a good deal of jokes and references that remain rooted in their 1940s-era context.
The story is straightforward enough: Elwood Dowd (Andy Anderson) has an invisible friend, a massive bunny he introduces to friends and family as a pooka, or a playful sprite from Irish mythology. The relationship is putting a psychological strain on Elwood’s family. Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Angie Thatcher), and his niece, Myrtle Mae Simmons (Deborah Curtis), are tired of the constant embarrassment and steady stream of stresses. They can’t hold social events in their rambling family estate for fear that Elwood will introduce guests to Harvey. Veta Louise can’t find a suitor because of her crazy uncle and his unseen rabbit friend.
It’s enough to drive the pair to finally commit Elwood at Chumley’s Rest, a sanitarium run by Dr. William Chumley (Ken Street) and his assistant Lyman Sanderson (David Trudeau). Committing Elwood proves tricky, however, and Mrytle Mae starts to rethink her decision as the crew at the sanitarium race to find Elwood and his pooka friend.
The real success of the Spotlight production hinges on the skill of director Bernie Caldwell and the constant energy of the show’s nimble cast. Together, they’re able to navigate Chase’s dense dialogue and sometimes dated comedy. The cast manages to find laughs amid the vintage comedy and get to the real heart of the show. It’s a tricky feat, considering that much of that heart lies in the relationship between a seen and an unseen character.
That burden falls largely on Andy Anderson, who plays the good-natured and kind-hearted Elwood Dowd. It’s a role that calls for a constant balance between affability and eccentricity, a protagonist who has to win over the audience even as he’s chatting with an invisible friend. Anderson takes up the challenge easily, offering a measured performance that’s never too overwrought or overdone. Between his conversations with Harvey, Anderson is gentle, approachable and sympathetic, traits that are crucial to the character.
As his frazzled sister Veta Louise, Thatcher offers a constant bundle of onstage energy, and Street is properly stuffy as the proper and self-righteous Dr. Chumley. As the sanitarium’s bumbling guard Duane Wilson, John Greene offers a strain of comedy rooted in slapstick, an element that fits the overall feel of the show. Still, some of the comedy doesn’t completely translate for 21st-century audiences — the sexual tension in between Trudeau’s Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Ruth Kelly, played by Johanna Jaquith, stands out as dated. While both actors are completely capable in their performance, the subtext of their interactions seems drawn from a different era.
Overall, Cardell manages to draw on the best skills of the ensemble to draw out the more timeless components of the comedy. Cardell also acted as scenic designer for the show, and the fact that he’s able to recreate a varied set of environments in the cramped space of the John Hand Theater helps add to the immediacy of the show.
Through the crew’s careful approach to the text and the cast’s talent for physical comedy, we see the qualities that won the show a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944 and made the 1950 film version starring Jimmy Stewart a success.
Nearly 70 years after its debut, “Harvey” remains a charming piece. As much as the world has changed since 1944, a 6-foot-3 rabbit can still make a compelling statement about perception and societal norms, even if he is invisible.
“Harvey” will run until March 26 at the John Hand Theater, 7653 E. 1st Place at Lowry. Tickets start at $20. For more information, log on to www.johnhandtheater.com. Three stars out of four.