Bringing a 60-year old comedy to the stage, even if its popularity has not died in that time, is quite an undertaking. Theatre in the Park is now running just such a show 61 years after its Broadway premiere; the comedy, Mary Chase’s Harvey, is a classic that has never really fallen out of favor. It is a gentle, humorous, oftentimes uproarious comedy that does not, really, have anything in the way of danger in it; even at the point when things look blackest for our hero, we know that something will happen to keep him from harm.
In adapting a World War II-era play to the modern stage, there are things you can do, and there are things you can’t do. Those things you can do have been done here, in spades. In updating and staging Harvey, TIP executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III has moved the set, the phones, and a lot of the background of the work into the 21st century. The house has a wireless phone, the ranking doctor in the show has a cell phone, and everyplace that Ellwood Dowd (played marvelously here by Scotty Cherryholmes) and his mysterious best friend, Harvey, go is a recognized locale in our current-day capitol — including the hospital, Dorothea Dix. But the music that wraps the play in its mood is unmistakably Big-Band Era, with all the tunes that one who remembers said time would recognize. The feel of the play, despite what TIP has done to update it, is still mid-20th-century. Which leaves one to wonder if updating the play only to a point was a good idea.
Nevertheless, what is a mild-mannered comedy has been made exceedingly familiar, at least, to those who are familiar with Raleigh. All the locales have been changed to Raleigh sites, and so much is made of this change that a flyer is even printed up for the patrons, to show them what places are being used, including the darling pink house in which the Dowds live, at a genuine Raleigh address.
David Wood has also chosen for his lead perhaps the perfect leading man for this sort of work. Scotty Cherryholmes has been working in theater in the Triangle for 15 years, since he moved here from the Lone Star State. In all the time that this reviewer has known the man, it is possible he has never raised his voice. Cherryholmes has the voice, the demeanor, and the substance to turn away all guile, skullduggery, and woe with a smile and a soft word — which is exactly what the character of Ellwood calls for. He is also a talented whistler, which in its own way brought laughter from the audience, as they recognized tune after tune as he whistled night and noon. Their favorite Saturday night was “The Andy Griffith Show” theme.
Harvey, to those uninitiated in this three-act, three-hour play, is a Pooka in the form of a six foot, three-and-a-half inch tall rabbit. Nobody sees him but Ellwood. But that, too, begins to change as the play progresses. Veta (Frances Stanley), Ellwood’s sister and house-mate, admits she has seen him; and the doctor in charge of running Dorothea Dix, Dr. William R. Chumley (John T. Hall), sees him as well. We never do; nor does the rest of the 11-member cast. Ellwood’s niece, Myrtle Mae Simmons (Jillian C Voytko), angrily denounces the beast as a figment of her uncle’s addled mind. Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Kevin Ferguson) and his nurse, Ruth Kelly (Mariette Booth), are prepared to commit Ellwood for his delusions. Hospital aide Duane Wilson (Danny Gomez) is ready to take Ellwood apart at the seams for his madness, and Ellwood’s own lawyer, Judge Omar Gaffney (Bob Harris), is also ready to have Ellwood locked up. But Dr. Chumley’s lovely, somewhat kooky Mrs., Betty (Margo Schuler), would find Ellwood a touch nuts only if he wasn’t such a nice man; and cabby E. J. Lofgren (Stephen Walsh) finds Ellwood to be the only sane man in a room full of dunderheads.
There is not a figure onstage that compares to the deftness in which Cherryholmes conducts his character; two, however, do hold their own. Frances Stanley as Veta is the very antithesis of Ellwood, highly attuned to what others think, maddened to near lunacy herself by this constant “demon” haunting her brother, and ready at a moment’s provocation to fly madly off the hook. Veta requires stamina as well as a good comic timing, and Stanley delivers both. John T. Hall, another Raleigh theater veteran, takes on the role of Dr. Chumley with high dudgeon. He is the one supposedly “most sane,” as the head of the hospital, which is why he becomes a little “undun” when he actually meets Harvey face-to-face. Hall handles both the severity and the lunacy of this role well.
The rest of the cast, though, are all over the map, putting in roles that are either way too familiar (Janis K. Coville in the cameo of Ellwood’s “Aunt,” Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet of Raleigh society); way over the top (the young deb Myrtle Mae, played by Jillian Voytko); or else downright amateur (Judge Gaffney, as emoted by Bob Harris). The rest of the cast all fall somewhere in between the above trio and the trio that headlines the work. Fortunately, the play can carry such a mixed bag, and the production as a whole is a success, garnering for its cast and crew a standing ovation Saturday night. Partly because the play has been so “localized,” the audience ate it up. Partly, the play and Ellwood himself are heart-warming. And partly, TIP does a fine job of staging the work, with a superb set and excellent lighting by Stephen J. Larson and sound design by director David Wood. Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives, and make Harvey a show worth seeing. But you better hurry, because Saturday night was sold out, and it only runs one more weekend.
Theatre in the Park presents Harvey Thursday-Saturday, March 24-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 27, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). Note: The March 24th performance will be audio described. 919/831-6058. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/harvey/harvey.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=4234. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042546/. Harvey’s Pooka Page: http://www.geocities.com/harveytpooka/harvey2.htm [inactive 10/05].
Veteran Triangle actor Scotty Cherryholmes will star as genial but decidedly eccentric Elwood P. Dowd in Theatre in the Park’s production of Harvey, which opens tonight in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre. Wood, who doubles as the Raleigh, NC-based community theater’s executive and artistic director, will “localize” Mary Chase’s prize-winning 1944 comedy about a well-to-do gentleman who drinks a little and mortifies his family and friends by carrying on conversations — in public — with his imaginary best friend, a six-foot rabbit named Harvey!
“In order for the play to truly weave its sweetest spell,” claims Harvey director David Wood, “I believe Harvey’s presence has to be a real possibility for the rest of us. In order for this to happen, we need to close the distance between Elwood and ourselves. In an attempt to make that process a bit easier, one of my first directorial choices was to localize the story’s setting. I don’t know if this has been done before; but the idea appealed to me, and our talented cast agreed to go along.
“So … Elwood lives in Historic Oakwood. He frequents familiar bars and taverns on Hillsborough Street. He knows people we know. When his sister wants to have him committed, Dix Hill has much more resonance to the rest of us than ‘Chumley’s Rest.’ If Elwood’s friend [Harvey] does exist, perhaps it’s all the more glorious because of the possibility that the time and place Harvey inhabits is our own.
“Does the play work without this device?” Wood asks. “Of course it does. It has. It will. However we finally suspend our disbelief, my hope is that we’ll all be able to claim a bit of Harvey for ourselves and, in that attempt, draw closer to the greater possibilities of our own individual uniqueness — as well as to the potential power of our own special dreams.”
When the curtain rises, says David Wood, “It is a spring afternoon at the Dowd family home at 410 Oakwood Ave. in Raleigh, and a tea for the high-society ladies of the Oakwood Forum is in full swing. The hostess, Veta Louise Simmons [Frances Stanley], is hoping that the event will allow her daughter, Myrtle Mae [Jillian Voytko], now in her twenties and still unmarried, to mingle with the mothers and grandmothers of some of the town’s remaining eligible bachelors. However, to Veta’s horror, her brother, Elwood P. Dowd [Scotty Cherryholmes], arrives home unexpectedly and in the company of his closest friend, Harvey, a six foot one-and-a-half inch tall white rabbit — a friend nobody else can see.”
Wood adds, “Veta and Myrtle Mae are mortified as Elwood who, ever pleasant and polite, begins introducing his companion to the ladies of the Oakwood Forum. The embarrassing family secret is now exposed, and all that Veta and Myrtle Mae can do is watch helplessly as their guests, led by Aunt Ethel [Janis K. Coville], flee the house.
Dowd claims that Harvey is a pooka, which is a mythological creature, according to various reference books. In Celtic folklore, a pooka, or púca, is a mischievous shape-shifting sprite who plays tricks on travelers, frightens young girls, and trips old women. Indeed, a pooka is a first cousin to Puck, a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin, the impish fairy who teases and torments the lost Athenian lovers in Elizabethan dramatist William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
David Wood says, “In spite of the fact that they are living in Elwood’s house and being supported by his money, Veta and Myrtle Mae vow that this is the last time they will be humiliated by his eccentric behavior. They, along with the help of Judge Omar Gaffney [Bob Harris], determine that the only solution is to commit Elwood to Dix Hill. Later that afternoon, they arrive by cab with Elwood at the sanitarium. Elwood is hustled away by Wilson [Danny Gomez], the sanitarium orderly. In the office, Veta meets with Nurse Kelly [Mariette Booth] and young Dr. Sanderson [Kevin Ferguson] and attempts to explain the situation of her brother and his invisible rabbit companion.
“Veta’s agitated state of mind, however, leads Dr. Sanderson to the conclusion that a terrible mistake has been made and that it is she, not her brother, who is the one in need of treatment. So, he releases Elwood and sends Veta off to the hydrotherapy tub.
“In an ensuing conversation between Dr. Sanderson and his superior, Dr. Chumley [John T. Hall],” Wood says, “it gradually becomes clear that yet another mistake has been made. It is indeed Elwood, not Veta, who was to have been committed. Veta, having suffered many indignities, is thus released, and the hunt for Elwood is on.
“In the ensuing confusion, the doctors, Dr. Chumley’s wife [Margo Schuler], Veta, and Elwood all try to figure out who is really crazy — no one, everyone, Elwood, Veta, or the doctors themselves? What, after all, as the cab driver [Stephen Walsh] says, is ‘a perfectly normal human being’? Of course, it all gets sorted out in the end, but there are many surprises (as well as comic doses of wisdom) along the way, as everyone questions just what exactly is real.”
Harvey made its Broadway debut, directed by Antoinette Perry and starring Frank Fay as Dowd and Josephine Hull as Veta Louise Simmons, on Nov. 1, 1944 at the 48th Street Theatre. The show ran for 1,775 performances, and won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 1950 motion-picture version of Harvey, directed by Henry Koster, starred James Stewart as Elwood and Josephine Hull as Veta Louise. Stewart, who turned in one of his most endearing performances as Dowd, received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role; and Hull won the 1951 Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
TIP director David Wood says, “I’ve never seen a stage production of Harvey. I studied it briefly when I was in college. A play about an invisible rabbit really didn’t ring any bells for me at the time. It was the 1960s after all, and there were things stranger than invisible rabbits walking the streets.
“I did stumble upon the movie on late night TV some years ago — and thought it was enchanting,” Wood recalls. “I picked the script up last year, read it — and felt it was something I wanted to do.”
In addition to director David Wood, who doubles as the show’s sound designer, the TIP creative team includes set and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and costume designer Carson Mather.
Wood says Harvey presents one special creative challenge to the show’s cast and design team: “An invisible rabbit is one of your main characters. Need I say more? Aside from the special effects — doors opening and closing on their own among other things — I’ve occasionally even donned a large rabbit head in order to walk around onstage with the actors while they’re rehearsing in order for them (particularly Scotty Cherryholmes as Elwood Dowd) to get accustomed to Harvey’s presence. Where is he standing during a particular scene? What chair is he sitting in now? Harvey has to be ‘real’ for us before he can be ‘real’ for the audience.”
Wood adds, “Steve [Larson] has designed a marvelous set with revolving walls. We are therefore able to move from the Dowd home to Dix Hill Hospital — a complete change of location — in a matter of about 30 seconds.”
David Wood notes, “There are two separate lighting designs: one for the Dowd home and one for Dix Hospital. Lighting in the home will be warm and cheery, whereas lighting in Dix will be more institutional.”
He adds, “We’re setting the action of the play in the present. Carson [Mather] is coordinating personal clothing in combination with theatrical costume additions.”
Wood claims, “Working on this production of Harvey — with such a uniquely talented cast and crew — has been an absolute joy. The play, by Mary Coyle Chase [1907-81], has been an American favorite since it was first brought to the Broadway stage in 1944.
“Before it opened,” Wood notes, “there were not very high expectations: the author had only written one play previously, which had been a quick failure. Harold Lloyd, Edward Everett Horton, Robert Benchley, and Jack Haley all turned down the lead role before Frank Fay accepted it. Fay, a retired vaudeville actor, astounded the critics with his performance.”
Wood says dramatist Mary Chase, the daughter of working-class Irish-American parents, was born in Denver, Colorado in 1907. Chase once told an interviewer that she got the idea for Harvey in 1942 while she watched a middle-aged woman neighbor slowly walking to a bus stop.
In 1954, Chase told Eleanor Harris: “She was a widow who had worked for years to send her only son through college. The day I looked at her, her boy had been dead about two months, killed in action in the Pacific. I asked myself … could I ever possibly write anything that might make this woman laugh again?’”
Harvey premiered in November 1944, when the outcome of World War II was still in doubt. In The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote, “The whole play bubbles with sheer as well as astonishingly unhackneyed fun.” New York Times critic Lewis Nichols praised the play’s “warm and gentle humor,” Newsweek called Harvey “one of the funniest comedies that has been Broadway’s luck in a long time,” and noted wit Dorothy Parker praised Denver playwright Mary Chase as “the greatest unacclaimed wit in America.”
David Wood notes, “It is 61 years later, and we’re once more a war-wearied country. Who wouldn’t like to smile again? Harvey’s a little like the Lone Ranger; he seems to arrive when we most need him. He teaches audiences that we all have the power to choose happiness over sorrow, contentment over dissatisfaction, and pleasure over pain. Elwood chooses Harvey. Granted, for the rest of us, the choice may not be offered; Harvey does not reveal himself to everyone; but if we should see him, wouldn’t that be so worth a smile?”
Theatre in the Park presents Harvey Thursday-Saturday, March 17-19 and 24-26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 20 and 27, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors). Note 1: There will be a reception following the March 18th performance. Note 2: The March 24th performance will be audio described. 919/831-6058. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2004-05_productions/harvey/harvey.htm [inactive 9/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=4234. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042546/. Harvey’s Pooka Page: http://www.geocities.com/harveytpooka/harvey2.htm [inactive 10/05].