Theater Review: HARVEY (Laguna Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on June 4, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

YOU’RE GETTING TO BE A RABBIT WITH ME

Whatever happened to all the imaginary friends we had as kids? Did they all end up in some limbo where they started making friends with each other, or, like Peter Pan, did they transfer their affections to a new generation of make-believers? Anyway, they’re no longer there when you need them — unless you’re Elwood P. Dowd, and your almost constant companion is a six-foot rabbit for whom you set a place at the table and buy theater tickets, and with whom you converse with rapture as you drink yourself into a better world.

Winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, Mary Chase’s Harvey was originally conceived as a theatrical escape during the worst days of World War II, in the same spirit as Arsenic and Old Lace, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Topper, and Miracle on 34th Street — all stories in which fantasy wins out over a predatory reality. Working from the story of the pooka (a mythical Gaelic creature, usually large, that liked to befriend humans), Chase originally saw Harvey as a canary. Two years and an astonishing 50 rewrites later, Harvey had become the overgrown Easter bunny he’s been ever since. As for Elwood, he was supposedly based on childhood advice the playwright got from her mother: “Never be unkind or indifferent to a person others say is crazy. Often they have deep wisdom.”

Gentle, self-effacing, contagiously cheerful Elwood seems perfectly ordinary, except for the invisible company he keeps. His frazzled sister Veta tries to have him committed — she has a selfish, social-climbing daughter named Myrtle, and fears Elwood will spoil her chances of landing a rich husband. (Elwood also owns the house they live in; not at all incidentally, it reverts to Veta if Elwood is institutionalized.)

Complications swirl as the flustered shrinks grab their euphemistic net to go after Elwood. Once chief psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (a virtual malpractice specialist) meets Elwood, it’s no longer easy to pin down what is reality or fantasy. But the reality at the Laguna Playhouse is that French Stewart and Elwood are the most perfectly matched actor and role I have seen since Reba McEntire and Annie in 2001’s Annie Get Your Gun. He brings to the rodent lover as unflappably chipper a disposition as Peter Sellers’s Chauncey the Gardener, but with a skip in his step. Happily possessed, Stewart’s Elwood radiates the kind of contentment only a perfect imaginary friendship (or is it?) can provide.

OK, Chase’s spoof of psychiatry is pretty familiar stuff, the love interest (between a Nurse and a young Doctor) is pure formula, and the play moves a bit more sedately than the screwball film. And maybe director Andre Barnicle’s perfect, perfect, perfect cast may be a bit too manic to make the playwright’s point of just who is crazy, but darn it if this 75-year-old warmly textured period piece with gorgeous production values doesn’t leave you warmer and fuzzier, well, than a rabbit. Hop to it.

photos by Ed Krieger

Harvey
Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach, CA
ends on June 16, 2019
for tickets, call 949.497.2787 or visit Laguna Playhouse

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