Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Wholly Harmonious Harvey

Joseph Haj continues to impress with a delightful staging of this classic story

Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
You'll definitely want to check out the Guthrie's latest main stage offering of Harvey, which is currently halfway through its run. It is one of the rare true comedies that anyone can love, with the sheen of Hollywood's Golden Age still alive in the performance by the wonderful cast.

Harvey centers around the eccentric but loveable Elwood P. Dowd, an intelligent and exquisitely-mannered man who seems to have it all - except for his sanity. Elwood's best friend is a 6 foot 3.5 inch tall white rabbit named Harvey, a "pooka" or Irish fairy, who only Elwood (and occasionally his sister) can see. Harvey's invisibility to the rest of the world causes much concern to everyone but Elwood. His sister Veta Louise Simmons tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy for herself and her daughter Myrtle Mae, but finally tries to commit Elwood to a sanitarium to keep him - and Harvey - from destroying their social standing.

Disaster ensues, however, as wires get crossed and the sanitarium staff let Elwood go and put Veta away instead. Once their mistake is realized, they chase Elwood down and nearly "treat" him, but are stopped by Veta before they can do so. Veta realizes that Elwood's quirks are what make him himself, and even if they are annoying sometimes, she doesn't want to fundamentally change who her brother is.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
This is a really fun cast, and they bring such brightness to their roles. Sally Wingert is wonderful as Veta, sharp and soft at the same time. Sun Mee Chomet steals the show as Veta's daughter Myrtle Mae, bringing a dry, overtly physical performance to each of her lines. I can't wait to see Sun Mee in future shows; she is acting from forehead to fingertips. Peggy O'Connell also makes the most of her brief moment as Betty Chumley, sending the audience into a shower of giggles.

David Kelly is heartwarming as Elwood, winning us over with his magnanimous mannerisms. He really sells the idea of Harvey as a real creature, and his monologue at the end of the show about the virtues of being pleasant versus intelligent would be well-heeded by many people. Steve Hendrickson is fabulous as psychiatrist William Chumley, bringing an old-school horror feel to his character with a serious yet witty delivery. His exposure as a Harvey-believer at the end of the show is a highlight and Hendrickson wears his surprise as a badge of honor.

Ansa Akyea and Greta Oglesby are in this show as well and do a great job with their vignettes. Both are fine actors and I would have loved to see more of them than relegated to a taxi driver and a vocalist - hopefully we they'll have bigger roles in future productions.
Photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater.
The production design for this show, as is usually the case at the Wurtele Thrust Stage, is spot on. The set literally revolves between a doctor's office and Elwood's home, and the transition is clean and precise. Both settings are just simple enough to allow focus to remain on the actors, which is a good thing; the whole cast is extremely physical with their delivery, and they need room to get around. In fact, the physical comedy in this Harvey is one of it's biggest joys - it will surprise you and make you wonder why more shows don't perform that way.

I was so impressed with this production, and that surprised me. I never liked the generally-beloved film version of Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart, and I fully anticipated to feel the same way here. (There's something about invisible bunnies that makes me a little uncomfortable). However, that was not the case at all. I laughed all the way through the show and found myself a little emotional by the end.

On the surface Harvey is just a silly story, but it has so much to say about inclusion and choosing a better life. Sometimes we make things too complicated for ourselves. Who cares if someone sees an imaginary spirit if that person is a genuinely pleasant, interested person? How often do you meet anyone who acts as generously as Elwood in real life? Isn't that a shame?

Harvey is a show that kids of any age can enjoy and will leave you feeling lighthearted and hopeful. With the gloom and doom on the news these days, that is an incredible gift. If you are able, definitely check Harvey out before it closes on May 15 - it's worth it!