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Pull a laugh out of a rabbit

Pulitzer-winning gentle comedy opens RMTC's new season

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Jan Skene, left, and Mark Crawford in Harvey.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO Enlarge Image

Jan Skene, left, and Mark Crawford in Harvey.

DURING the Second World War, Denver newspaper reporter and emerging playwright Mary Chase would watch a widow who had just lost her only son as she waited for her bus to go to work.

Chase became haunted by the daily sight of this heartbroken woman moving slower and slower as she grappled with her enormous loss and uncertain future. The 35-year-old wondered to herself, "Would I ever possibly write anything that makes this woman laugh again?"

Her attempt to bring some cheer into a war-weary world was her 1942 play Harvey, an offbeat comic drama about a friendly inebriate named Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible companion, a six-foot-tall rabbit. Despite being amiable and kind, Elwood is considered an embarrassment to the family, especially his striving sister Veta, who plots to have him institutionalized.

Chase never found out what effect Harvey had on her neighbour, but she succeeded in making plenty of Americans, desperate for a stage tonic, laugh for a couple of hours. It opened on Broadway in 1944 and ran for nearly five years. It was directed by Antoinette Perry -- for whom the Tony Awards are named -- and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year.

Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart played Dowd in the beloved 1950 movie version, which earned Josephine Hull, the original Veta on Broadway, a supporting actress Oscar. Stewart lost the best actor Oscar to José Ferrer, but returned to the role in a 1970 revival with Helen Hayes.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre will launch its new season with Harvey (RMTC is also presenting Tennessee Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie, which Harvey upset for the Pulitzer, in January).

"I chose to open our '13-'14 season with Harvey, certain that its subtle magic would charm most of our invaluable audience, offer anyone who gives it half a chance the opportunity to feel more joyful, less stressed about whatever may be troubling them, and glad to have spent 21/2 hours of their precious lives in our theatre," says RMTC artistic director Steven Schipper, who will be directing The Glass Menagerie.

The arguments go on about which play deserved the Pulitzer. The Glass Menagerie has been acknowledged as the best family drama of all time (although fans of August: Osage County can build a strong case for the Tracy Letts masterpiece).

"Critic Peter Filichia argues Mary Chase was trying to do something that had never been done before," says Schipper, who believes Chase deserved the Pulitzer. "She used the Irish folk tales her mother told her to pull the rug out from under the social-climbing American dream, and reminded us that the kindness, decency and gentle eccentricity of an Elwood P. Dowd must be preserved, not cured.

"And she did all this while making audiences laugh."

Harvey has enjoyed a recent rebirth with a 2012 Broadway revival starring Jim Parsons, who plays ultra-geeky Sheldon Cooper on TV's The Big Bang Theory, while the Shaw Festival had an extended run in 2010. It has a resonance today, even though there is no global war. Director Steven Spielberg wanted to have another go at a remake for the big screen but couldn't find the actor to play Dowd.

"Like 70 years ago, there is a lot of heartache and pain in the world," says Toronto actor Catherine Fitch, who plays Veta, during an interview at the theatre "You only have to walk out on the street to see pain and suffering. To bring some kind of joy or relief from that is something that will always be needed, unfortunately."

The bunny of the title is a pooka, a kind of mythical invisible spirit from Celtic mythology. This fairy spirit can be an oversized rabbit or a horse who can speak. Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream or the trickster in aboriginal lore are derivatives of pooka.

"Who Harvey is is up to every person who comes to see the play," says Fitch, whose only previous RMTC appearance was in Orpheus Descending in 2006. "He represents something different to everyone."

Mark Crawford, another Ontario-based actor, is making his Winnipeg debut as Elwood. Having previously been cast as the good-hearted George Bailey in a Theatre New Brunswick production of It's a Wonderful Life, he is again walking in the footsteps of one of Jimmy Stewart's greatest roles.

"Director Ann Hodges said that Elwood, at certain points, is so full of light and love and hope that he needs to glow," Crawford says. "I thought, 'Oh, I need to glow.' What is in the character and what I hope I have is optimism, hope, openness and I want other people to be the best versions of themselves. Jimmy Stewart exemplified that."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2013 C8

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