Seeing is believing in Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize winner Harvey, about a likable bachelor whose best friend is a six-foot-tall white rabbit that’s invisible to everyone else.
It takes a while to believe in this quaint antique about delusion and reality, which opened the 2013-14 Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre season Thursday. The corny jokes and the mouldy style of overacting take a while to get used to, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s more to this whimsical comedy of errors than meets the eye.
The 150-minute show’s buy-in is Elwood P. Dowd, a rabbit-lover who appears never to have had an uncharitable thought. Is he simply some rube, an easy target for fast-talking telephone magazine salespeople who hit him up for subscriptions for both himself and Harvey? Or is he an endearing eccentric who has found a peace only he can see?
Elwood recalls the words of his mother, who advised him that in this world, "‘You must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleasant.’ For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."
Chase’s play proves to be both.
Elwood lives in a Victorian mansion with his social-climbing sister Veta and her wannabe debutante daughter Myrtle Mae. Both see him and his habit of introducing Harvey to everyone he meets as a stain on the family name, making them high society’s laughingstock.
The latest embarrassment compels them to institutionalize him at Chumley’s Rest Sanatorium, but Veta is so overzealous in detailing Elwood’s so-called insanity that she gets checked in and her brother walks out free.
The slapstick-cum-farce that ensues makes Elwood’s serenity preferable to all those around him, who are driven into a frenzy by Harvey’s unseen presence. He becomes far more likable and trustworthy than the phoney, supposedly sane people with ulterior motives.
Director Ann Hodges maintains the delicate balance between Harvey as morality tale and cartoon, while opting to play down the effects of Harvey’s daily tippling in the bars.
Mark Crawford, in his Winnipeg debut as Elwood, is so convincing that we begin to see Harvey, too. His measured aw-shucks speech makes Elwood appear slow but his folksy wisdom begins to land with impact and wins converts. At times, Crawford even sounds like Jimmy Stewart, whose indelible performance as Elwood in the beloved 1950 movie version was a signature role.
Staging visually rich period pieces is an RMTC specialty, and Harvey is elegantly dressed up in stylish hats and furs for the contrasting two worlds created by designer Brian Perchaluk — the warm, stately wood-panelled Dowd library and the cold, sterile sanatorium.
Veta becomes an inhabitant of both and the stand-in for the audience, who learn that normal is not always a good thing. Catherine Fitch plays the priggish Veta as somewhat batty herself and excels in the physical comedy required for the scene where she returns dishevelled and bewildered, describing the trauma she experienced during her short stay in the sanatorium. The capper is watching the blissful face of Alissa Watson as Mrytle Mae, who finally gets some scraps of relief from her pent-up sexual frustration.
Most of the supporting roles played by Winnipeggers are effectively performed. As self-important psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson and his smitten nurse Kelly, Jeremy Walmsley and Laura Olafson enjoy a classic screwball moment in which their outward dislike hardly conceals their passion for each other. As the sometimes brutish orderly Wilson, the dependable Cory Wojcik supplies the hardness that represents society’s intolerance of nonconformity, along with an unexpected touch of the ladies’ man. Harry Nelken makes a late but essential appearance as a cab driver who delivers Chase’s most pointed reminder that perfectly normal human beings are too often unpleasant people.
It’s a message that has resonated for nearly 70 years which has brought Harvey into focus for a lot of audience members. Anyone who is different is rehabilitated, in this case with drugs, into someone that society deems normal. With Harvey, which debuted during the dark days of the Second World War, Chase sought mercy for the world’s peculiars. That plea never grows old.