Harvey, currently playing at Laurel Mill Playhoue, and produced by Maureen Rodgers, is a wonderful classic American comedy. It was unique when it opened in the 1940s. First of all, it won a Pulitzer Prize, but even more so, it was written by a woman. There was, until recently, a paucity of women playwrights, but Mary Chase remains one of the few ladies to win the prestigious prize for drama. Harvey was her first Broadway production and was a smash hit. The film version in 1951 was a hit, and won an Academy Award for Josephine Hull who played Veta Louise Simmons, Elwood’s beleagured sister. Although Ms. Chase wrote a few more plays, none was as successful.
For those who have never seen the play, it is wonderful comedy which examines society’s treatment of those who may have mental illness but are not dangerous to themselves or others. It also pokes fun at psychiatry, and with the bombardment of the airwaves of pills to make us normal and happy, it remains very relevant today. In the plot the lead character, Elwood P. Dowd, sees a large pooka, which has taken the form of a rabbit. (A pooka can take the form of any animal according to Celtic folklore.) The imaginary rabbit is Harvey.
Harvey is directed by Clare Shaffer who manages to moves the actors around this small stage in an artful way and she lets her wonderful actors interpret their roles in a most credible fashion. Her production team works well to bring us this flawlessly choreographed and attractive production.
Tom Howley, who plays the loveable and iconic Elwood, brilliantly walks that fine-line that makes Elwood believable and loveable and not laughable. We laugh at others reactions but rarely at Elwood. Howley’s Elwood effortlessly deals with being forced into commitment at a mental hospital and the realization that his sister and niece are miserable with his buddy, Harvey. There is no doubt that Elwood is a little strange, but the actor is able to keep Elwood charming and pleasant without making him childish or nutty.
Margaret Condon plays Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons. She hits the mark with her portrayal of this slightly neurotic society lady who is under great pressure from her daughter to deal with her brother’s abnormality. She always makes us feel she loves her brother, and her scene after her accidental commitment to Chumley’s Rest Home, is a blend of anger, agitation, and concern for her family.
The two young actresses, MerryRose Howley, and the real life daughter of Tom Howley, as Nurse Kelly and Heather Warren who plays Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae, both making their first appearance at Laurel Mill Playhouse, have learned the art of playing two-faced characters. Ms. Howley’s character shows different faces to her clients, her boss, Elwood and to the dense target of her romantic arrows. These are subtle changes as Kelly is a sweet and affable character, but Ms. Howley pulls it off. Ms. Warren keeps Myrtle from becoming unbelievable by showing the real frustration she feels as the niece forced to live with her rather odd uncle. Most memorable is the scene where her mother describes her forced and somewhat sexual incarceration. We see the conflict of repressed lust and the emotions we want society to see.
James Raymond, as the dense Dr. Sanderson, keeps him smart but we accept that the young doctor does not understand he unconsciously yearns for Nurse Kelly as well. The chemistry between the two actors works well. Ron Able plays the orderly Wilson with just the right crassness and lechery without making him a stereotype. Having worked five years in a hospital for the mentally ill, I think this portrayal shows an understanding of how these workers are often more aware that their employers are just as wacky as the clients that they serve. Gene Valendo is Dr. William Chumley. We watch as the character slips from therapist to a drunk with his own mental demons. Valendo’s scene with Elwood where Chumley actually becomes the patient is one of his best.
The rest of the cast may have smaller roles, but all make their scenes believable and humorous. Maureen Rogers, as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet, adeptly plays the kindly but shocked society lady. As Anne Hull, Betty Chumley is perfect as the wife of the doctor who ignores her, but becomes enchanted with Mr. Dowd’s charm and manners. Larry Simmons’ brief appearance as a taxi driver, E. J. Lofgren, shows off the versatility of this seasoned LMP regular. Jon Marget more than competently plays the old family friend, Judge Omar Gaffney.
The set created by Scenic Designer James Raymond and Assistant Scenic Designer Linday Maiorano, is extraordinary. They brilliantly built rotating flats that miraculously turn the library of Dowd into the lobby of the sanitarium. They create illusions of bookshelves and windows. The scene changes are quick, and the actors themselves move the flats and furniture effortlessly.
The costumes are in period and were put together by the actors. The ladies’ hats are excellent examples of a time when the millinery was a statement and a little outrageous.
The lighting design by T. J. Lukacsina and sound design by Larry Simmons meld nicely with the set. Final kudos to the backstage crew who help the audience “see” Harvey by the end of the production.
I urge you to hop right over to Laurel Mill Playhouse and buy tickets to this hare-raising classic.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.