Purple Rose’s “Harvey” reveals poignancy along with whimsy
Mary Chase’s Harvey has been entertaining audiences with its gentle humor for more than 70 years. It’s a play we think we know well.
The new Purple Rose Theatre production of this Broadway classic reveals a deeper, richer, and more focused Harvey. It’s still funny, still frantic at times, but so much more.
We are most familiar with James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd. He’s a sweet charmer and he drinks a bit but has a sense of the whimsical and a good heart. He can see eye to eye with a six-and-a-half-foot rabbit, or more precisely a pooka, a Celtic spirit with an affection for rumpots and others.
Now imagine instead a different kind of Elwood P. Dowd. He’s still a charmer with a whimsical streak. But he’s a smaller man and maybe he drinks a little more than he should and those ideas he floats about life might just be worth our attention.
Director Guy Sanville begins with that notion that Elwood is in constant pursuit of healing himself and trying to heal others. There is a sadness in the comedy. The production plays on Mary Chase’s Irish heritage and how it inspires many of Harvey’s most perceptive lines and partly defines Elwood’s character. Sanville brings out the humor and adds more than a little zaniness, but it’s the quiet moments that make this must-see theater.
Elwood lives with his sister Veta Louise and her daughter Myrtle Mae in a comfortable old house left to Elwood by his mother, whom he lived with and cared for until she died. One day, Elwood says, he heard someone call his name and turned around to see this very large rabbit that only he could see. The rabbit became his constant companion and he introduced him to everyone in town as he made the rounds from the firehouse gang, to the local taverns, to the card clubs and diners. He got a reputation.
Elwood’s reputation has ruined his sister’s social life and jeopardized Myrtle’s chances with society and finding a man (this is the 1940s after all). Veta takes action and attempts to put her beloved brother in a mental sanitarium and confusion ensues.
Michele Mountain’s Veta is a contortion of anguish and mixed emotion’s. When she tries to explain to an arrogant and stiff young psychiatrist her growing obsession with the rabbit, he believes she’s the one with problems and boldly takes action. Mountain is both hilarious and poignant, as poor Veta is caught between two loves and her own frustrations with life’s burdens. Veta is both a little whacky but also protective of her own.
Caitlin Cavannaugh plays Myrtle Mae, a young woman past her teens, who is mortified by her uncle and also trapped in her own introverted personality. Cavannaugh plays the selfish girl with a bit of steel but when love comes calling, she finds her real self far from society’s place. Cavannaugh also has a chance to show her Celtic heritage between scenes with some imaginative dancing and fine singing.
Harvey tells another story, of course. It’s the story of the staff at the mental sanitarium, who seem more in need of mental care than their patients.
The young psychiatrist, Dr. Sanderson, is a stiff, unyielding know-it-all who knows nothing. Rusty Mewha gives him the right amount of odious self-righteousness while slowly showing his vulnerable side to the attractive nurse Kelly. Lauren Knox plays the frustrated nurse with a calm, cool manner until she finally lets her feelings known.
Sanville and actor David Bendena amp up the character of Wilson, the sanitarium’s patient attendant. In most versions he’s a grump who’s determined to do his duty and snarl all the while. Forget that. Bendena makes him a hotwire, ever-exploding, deeply disturbed, and breathlessly hilarious nutcase. When Bendena is on, he brings the laughs. But here, too, there is a poignancy to his deranged young man of the 1940s that Bendena also brings out.
At the heart of the sanitarium is Dr. Chumley, a man who believes he’s found the answer to mental health problems. But, of course, he’s a troubled man who just doesn’t know it. Hugh Maguire moves smoothly from doctor-bureaucrat to outraged administrator to childlike wonder. He expertly takes Chumley from grump to someone intoxicated by life (and a little alcohol).
But Harvey is finally about Elwood P. Dowd and it is here that the Purple Rose gives us a perfect Elwood, not just a man with a whimsical imagination but a man with so much more. Richard McWilliams plays Elwood as a shambling man with rumpled clothes and a battered fedora. He’s the kind of man you’d run into at a bar and he’d quickly engage you in conversation. He’s a charmer, especially to the young ladies. But McWilliams has a way of smiling and crinkling his eyes that suggest depths of feeling, suggesting not just personal pain but real concern for others. When his Elwood speaks, you lean in to listen to what he says.
What he says is often funny. His quick repartee with others is an Irish gift of gab. He’s always ready with a quip or a knowing look. But in his quiet manner, he has a story to tell. As he says to the shrink, “Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” But as he explains his endless wonderings around town, he reveals a mission to other troubled souls as he says, “Nobody brings anything small into a bar.” McWilliams is a low-key, nuanced actor who is the Elwood, I believe, Mary Chase intended. His key quality is a gentle warmth rather than a vague whimsy.
Also in the uniformly fine cast are Ruth Crawford as Elwood’s doting aunt, Susan Craves as Chumley’s more engaging wife, Tom Whalen as the family lawyer Judge Gaffney, and Larry Peters as a cab driver with a story to tell.
The production is livened by some fine Celtic music, especially a poignant and telling performance by Cavannaugh of “The Parting Glass.” Sarah Pearline’s imaginative two-for-one set of the Dowd home library and the sanitarium lobby is transformed between scenes with appropriate humor and action including a sharp display of Hula Hoop mastery and a lively Irish dance about.
Harvey works his pooka magic over everyone he chooses to grace with his presence. He, Guy Sanville, Richard McWilliams, and cast have also worked their magic to create a revelation of Harvey’s story.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
“Harvey” continues Wednesdays through Sundays until August 26, at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Tickets range from $20.50 to $46 with special discounts for students, seniors, teachers and members of the military and groups. For more information or to make reservations, call (734) 433-7673 or go to