Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Review: Normal is overrated, says comedy classic Harvey

Wartime chestnut long in the tooth, but its message is undiminished

  • Print
Jan Skene, left, and Mark Crawford in Harvey.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO Enlarge Image

Jan Skene, left, and Mark Crawford in Harvey.

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.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Inside peek at Real Pirates, new Manitoba Museum exhibit

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • June 25, 2013 - 130625  -  A storm lit up Winnipeg Tuesday, June 25, 2013. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press - lightning
  • A water lily in full bloom is reflected in the pond at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden Tuesday afternoon. Standup photo. Sept 11,  2012 (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Are you surprised the Bombers didn't make the playoffs?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google