The Alley’s ‘Harvey’: A Review

22 Apr

Alley Theatre, through May 9

By JOHN DeMERS

Through nearly half of its running time, this Alley production of Mary Chase’s best-known play feels like a warm, largely effortless TV sitcom from anywhere between the 1950s and today – though considering the innocence of this material, I’d be more tempted to guess the former than the latter. And a good half of that is spent remembering the forever-affable Jimmy Stewart chatting happily with a 6-foot-tall invisible white rabbit who gave the resulting film its title and its primary comic effect.

In true sitcom style, eccentric but lovable characters race in and out of the room, flustered and flabbergasted, mugging and gawking as though there were a camera right there for all the close-ups. You sit in the live audience at the Alley half-remembering which sitcom had this character or that one, and even what your favorite episode might have been. But then, something happens.

In Harvey, there’s no naming of what happens, indeed no mention that anything happens at all. But as acts 2 and 3 roll around, the sense increases that something dark and sinister is scratching at the windows and doors, trying to get at the affection and innocence within. Whatever is outside hates what’s inside – these rounded edges of remembered light, the quirky misunderstandings that family members have, the way it all looks so wonderful in memory or in scratchy eight-millimeter home movies. I’m guessing that something was World War II. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why this amusing evening of gathered eccentricities picked up a Pulitzer Prize.

Today, we don’t have a global war tearing at our innocence and ripping apart our isolation every day in the morning paper. Today, in fact, we have neither innocence nor isolation, so there’s something deliciously quaint, something wistful about watching a production of Harvey at all. Not only do these characters never leave the country to go kill anybody, they barely seem to leave their neighborhood. For Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible best friend, there are more than enough bars to visit within walking distance.

The production is nothing short of luminous, with sets by Hugh Landwehr, period costumes (vaguely 1930s) by Judith Dolan and lighting by Pat Collins. If anything, the warm, rich colors of the Dowd home – a kind of library, of course, with other places for people to run through various doors – is contrasted with the sterile white of the sanitorium in which Elwood seems ever about to be committed, analyzed, drugged and “cured” of the very things that make him worthy of our love. I don’t imagine psychiatry and its enforcers are the villains here, though: this isn’t One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The villain, to a large degree, is the world that gave us psychiatry (and World War II), taking away so much that was golden about America as part of the exchange.

Few actors within 1,000 miles seemed less likely to be right as Elwood P. Dowd than the Alley’s James Black. Nearly every character he plays here is too smart, too cynical and definitely too acerbic to be anyone ever associated on film with Jimmy Stewart. Indeed, Black has handled the Jack Nicholson role in Cuckoo’s Nest to considerable effect.  In Harvey, though, he works hard to soften his razor’s edge of a voice and even lets vocal notes crack from time to time, taking on an innocent grin for the world that endears unexpectedly.  The transformation is close to remarkable, one of those things an actor has to pull off from time to time in a resident company when audiences remember the characters you’ve played before. Black is a revelation, proving that it’s possible to become Elwood without becoming Jimmy.

Kristine Nielsen as Elwood’s ever-put-upon, ever-flustered and presumably ever-widowed sister Veta Louise is the most-sitcom of all the characters, the kind of puffed-up, socially ambitious, shallow-but-ultimately-redeemable sort we’ve seen play aunts, mothers-in-law, sorority housemothers and even maids on TV for generations. And what can we say: Nielsen has watched the reruns on Nick at Nite and transmuted them into something marvelous. The same can be said of James Belcher as the family lawyer invariably called “Judge” and Elizabeth Bunch as Veta’s constantly hysterical daughter Myrtle Mae, whom she’d very much like to marry into money.

Moving out of the Dowd library to Chumley’s Rest – whose stark white set pieces roll onstage beautifully, unstoppable as modernity itself – the cast is equally adept. John Tyson is marvelous as Dr. Chumbley, a mixture of good and evil (even a little sympathetic when he starts seeing Harvey too) until he takes to walking around with the huge, truly frightening syringe that will cure Elwood of all his delusions. Mark Shanahan and Emily Neves are terrific as his assisting doctor and nurse. And though the role is tiny and arrives very late in the play, we can’t forget Todd Waite as cab driver E.J. Lofgren. In his briefest description of what patients are like when he drives them out to Chumley’s Rest – and what they’re like when he drives them home after being repaired – Mary Chase earns her Pulitzer.    

Photos by Jann Whaley: (top) Black, Nielsen and Tyson; (bottom) Neves and Shanahan.

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