Review: ‘Harvey’ at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia

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So what if he’s invisible? He’s still the best friend and constant companion of the lovably eccentric tippler Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, a delightful revival of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage (1944) and film classic (1950), with additional dialogue by Ken Ludwig, now in production at the Walnut Street Theatre. And though the eponymous six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch anthropomorphic white rabbit is more accurately a pooka–a very large and mischievous hobgoblin from ancient Celtic mythology, capable of assuming animal form–who would know, since no one can see him but Elwood?

Ben Dibble, Bob Carlton, Dan Olmstead, Fran Prisco, Greg Wood, Harvey, H. Michael Walls, Ian Merrill Peakes, Ken Ludwig, Lauren Sowa, Mark Mariani, Mary Chase, Mary Martello, Robert Koharchik, and Susan Riley Stevens. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ben Dibble, Susan Riley Stevens, Ellie Mooney, and Mary Martello. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Mortified when he introduces his unseen buddy to guests at a posh afternoon social gathering at the Dowds’ grand residence, Elwood’s sister Veta, increasingly distressed by her brother’s odd behavior, resolves to save the reputation of their wealthy family by delivering him to Chumley’s Rest, the local sanitarium. But nothing goes as planned in this madcap comedy of errors, and hilarity ensues as a confused Dr. Sanderson commits the wrong patient, and everyone joins in to search for the elusive big bunny and his BFF.

Bob Carlton directs a cast full of Philadelphia favorites led by Ben Dibble as the ever-affable Elwood, in an irresistible performance (and witty pre-show appearance) that ranks among his best ever, skillfully capturing the kindness and geniality of his seemingly delusional character, winning over the audience with his uniquely endearing personality, and convincing everyone that “normal” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Mary Martello portrays his exasperated tee-totaling sibling Veta with full-blown anxiety and laughable pretension, putting on airs and grooming her single daughter Myrtle Mae–played to the hilt by Ellie Mooney–in the art of social climbing and marrying well. The three, with Martello collapsing from stress, Mooney walking into doors, and Dibble doing a well-executed spit-take, provide a master class in the style of physical comedy that was popular in the 1940s and still elicits howls today.

The superb ensemble of sanitarium staff–Ian Merrill Peakes (Dr. Sanderson), Lauren Sowa (Nurse Kelly), Greg Wood (Dr. Chumley), Susan Riley Stevens (Mrs. Chumley), and Dan Olmstead as the brutish orderly Duane Wilson–displays perfect pacing, impeccable comedic timing, and flawless synchronicity, delivering the script’s old-fashioned idioms, risqué double entendres, and expressive reactions to Elwood, Harvey, and each other with ease. Rounding out the cast are H. Michael Walls (as the litigious Judge Gaffney) and Fran Prisco as EJ Lofgren, the observant cab driver who comes to the rescue and saves Elwood from a life of unpleasant normalcy.

Ian Merrill Peakes and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ian Merrill Peakes and Ben Dibble. Photo by Mark Garvin.

An impressive scenic design by Robert Koharchik and period-style costumes by Mark Mariani evoke the opulence of a moneyed class in the tastefully “festooned” library of the Dowd mansion and the lobby of Chumley’s stately sanitarium, replete with a vintage radio, telephones, and crisp white uniforms.

With its outstanding production values, expert direction, and top-notch acting, Walnut Street’s Harvey is a humorous slice of mid-century Americana and is sweetly nostalgic, fully engaging, and thoroughly entertaining.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 20-minute intermission.

4. Walnut St, HARVEY poster

Harvey plays through Sunday, March 6, 2016, at Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.

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