Harvey, a great classic of the American theater (it won the Pulitzer in 1944, beating out The Glass Menagerie) now at 1st Stage in McLean, is a story in which the hero, Elwood P. Dowd (Jonathan Lee Taylor), is a dipsomaniac who has as a best friend a pooka — that is to say, a fairy spirit inhabiting the body of an invisible rabbit the size of an NBA point guard. How can this be?
In real life, most of us would give some thought to putting Elwood under the protection of a medical institution, to prevent him from harming himself or others from taking advantage of him. In that we would not be too different from Elwood’s sister Veta Louise Simmons (Tonya Beckman) or her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Kelsey Meiklejohn), who plan to do precisely that. Then why is that we spend the entire play rooting for Elwood, and hoping for confusion to his enemies — a hope which will be generously indulged in this story?
Perhaps it’s because Veta’s motives are not pure — she has ambitions to join local society and find a match for her venal little daughter, and is embarrassed by Elwood, who, frustratingly, owns the entire Dowd fortune, including the house in which they live.
Or perhaps it is because Elwood, for all his obliviousness (he insists on hanging his hat over a lit lamp) and delusion, is a much better person than those around him: the self-important Veta, the whiny, greedy Myrtle Mae (as soon as she thinks Elwood has been confined to a sanitarium she tries to sell the house), the brutish sanitarium guard Wilson (Robert Grimm), the casually arrogant Dr. Sanderson (Tim Torre), and the bombastic Dr. William Chumley (Elliot Bales), who seems to have invented arrogance, are all tailor-made villains. Elwood becomes the hero by default.
Chase wrote this play during WWII and director Michael Chamberlain gives it a 1940s-style production, with broad gestures, emphatic declaiming and exaggerated reactions. This is not overacting, it is period acting, and, given the dialogue, I think it is probably the right choice. Nonetheless, it presents some challenges to the actors, who usually surmount them. I’m thinking in particular of Veta’s scene in the sanitarium, where she tries to describe Elwood’s delusions to Sanderson. Beckman’s challenge is to do so in a way which convinces Sanderson that it is she, and not Elwood, who is insane (this is the meat of the first Act), and still be consistent with the character she established in the first part of the play. Beckman pulls it off, but you can see how hard the matter is.
So how has this seventy-year-old play held up, as produced by 1st Stage? In most of the specifics, pretty well. Taylor’s insouciant, cheerful performance seems influenced by Jimmy Stewart’s film portrayal, bringing the same hint of a fierce intelligence to the character’s laid-back persona. Of the villainous performances — all of them effective — Beckman’s was the subtlest and Bales’ was the most powerful; he enters the play with such a fierce carnivorousness that his gradual breakdown becomes a matter of intense interest throughout the play.
The stock Beatrice-and-Benedick romantic subplot between Dr. Sanderson and nurse Ruth Kelly (Carolyn Kashner) also still works, mostly because the two actors establish an effective chemistry. Of course, the underside of this relationship is the implication that Nurse Kelly’s principal preoccupation is to find a mate, but the difference between that perspective in 1944 and in the present day (for both genders) is of degree, not kind.
There are other parts of the play which have not endured as well. Elwood’s bibulousness — he carries a flask for those few moments when he is not in a bar — was perhaps more appealing in the 1940s, when they had better livers than we do now.
More disturbing is Myrtle Mae’s voracious sexual appetite, and taste for physical abuse. As Veta describes being stripped of her clothes and dumped into a hydrotub (the forerunner of today’s hot tub, but not as fun) by Wilson when Sanderson mistakenly concluded that she was the one who was mentally ill, Myrtle listens raptly; and when Wilson meets Myrtle Mae he gives her a slap on the rump, which she obviously enjoys. Myrtle is attracted to Wilson, and his physical abuse is one of the reasons. This is not the fault of either Meiklejohn or Grimm, both of whom do good, interesting work, or of the production. As Jessica Rabbit once said, she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.
The play features effective cameos by William Aitken, Emily Morrison and especially Sue Schaffel as Dr. Chumley’s dim yet scheming wife. Schaffel gives significant nuance in only a few lines, and I look forward to her future work.
November 12 – December 20, 2015
1st Stage Theatre
1524 Spring Hill Road
McLean, VA 22102
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
On the technical side, designer Kay Hughes creates two very different sets — the Dowd’s eccentric sitting room, where the books are all neatly filed in the fireplace, and the reception room in Dr. Chumley’s sanitarium, a symphony of powder blue and white — and presents them to us through the use of a turntable. Hughes’ sets are impressively detailed; the reception area features a large working clock, which accurately reflects time in the world of the play. The remaining stagecraft — in particular Kara Waala’s period costumes — is similarly laudable.
The second Act features several surprises, the nature of which I dasn’t tell you. In all candor, though, I must say that I did not find them convincing. Characters change their minds for what seems capricious reasons, or no reason. Elwood reveals more of his true nature, but remains enigmatic. We have a happy, though extremely improbable, resolution.
Of course, that may have had a special meaning in 1944. There was a time during the war when victory, or even survival as a nation, seemed unlikely, and perhaps Harvey endures because happiness, though continually improbable, seems forever within our grasp.
Harvey by Mary Chase . Directed by Michael Chamberlain . Featuring William Aitken, Elliot Bales, Tonya Beckman, Robert Grimm, DeJeanette Horne, Carolyn Kashner, Kelsey Meiklejohn, Emily Morrison, Sue Schaffel, Jonathan Lee Taylor and Tim Torre . Sound Design: Edward Moser . Lighting design: Brittany Shemuga . Costume design: Kara Waala . Technical Director: Jose Abraham . Production Manager: Anna Bate . Properties: Cindy Landrum Jacobs . Stage Managers: Nathan Vasquez and Kathryn Dooley . Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.