Dance in Review

Court Theatre’s production of Harvey tells the fable of Elwood P. Dowd.

Played wonderfully by Timothy Edward Kane, Dowd is an independently wealthy bachelor whose immense warmth and engaging demeanor earns him friendship readily with everyone. This includes the 6’ 3½” tall white rabbit, Harvey, who for most of the play, only he can see.

Elwood lives on the estate of his late mother, where his sister, Veta Louise (Karen James Wodistch) and young adult niece Myrtle Mae (Sarah Price), have moved from Des Moines, with hopes of climbing the social ladder. But they are thwarted by Elwood’s eccentric behavior – his ongoing conversations with Harvey are off-putting to polite society. They decide to have him committed to a mental institution.

Harvey won a Pulitzer in 1944 for playwright Mary Chase (beating Tennessee Williams the Glass Menagerie, no less), and became a movie with James Stewart in 1950 –  the version of Harvey people know. No one would get these scripts confused; Williams is objectively the better writer. 

Yet Harvey has momentum, and even reaches a moment of power – which is why it is beloved by many.

Chase’s character Elwood P. Dowd reminds us of Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, someone floating above the fray, dispensing homespun wisdom and soothing the turmoil of those around him. (The play was revived famously with Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons in the lead on Broadway five years ago.)

Director Devon de Mayo has maintained the piece in its 1944 time frame, almost a requirement given the script. Artifacts of period mental healthcare like shock therapy, hydrobaths, and a vaguely sadistic undercurrent among the hospital staff are unsettling, and form the basis of much of the humor: As Veta attempts to commit Elwood, she ends up in a cell instead. Upon her escape, she tells of being forcibly stripped and placed in a hot bath by an attendant she describes as a “whoremaster.” I think that was cut from the film.

Chase has also delved into Irish myth with Harvey. The rabbit is a Pooka, in Celtic lore a shapeshifter that could tell the future, and visit outcasts to improve their lives. 

Court Theatre’s production of Harvey goes for the broad humor, and a sort of mad-cap pacing from screwball comedies. And the audience was laughing from the get go, though I was not caught up in the frivolity, at least not right away.   

Timothy Kane as Elwood P. Dowd provides the anchoring performance for all the froth on stage. Kane is a most remarkable comedic actor – hilariously funny in One Man-Two Guvnors at Court Theatre last year.

Kane’s Elwood hooks us in a soliloquy on how to live properly, building soon after to the climactic scene that gives the play it’s heft.

Here Kane turns on Elwood’s magic, playing admirably against Amy Carle, who also shines in the scene as cabby E.J. Lofgren. Elwood is about to be treated at the mental institution to end his visions of Harvey, when the cabby appears, angrily demanding the fare be paid before Elwood gets his treatment.

But then the cabby succumbs to Elwood’s charms as he pays her. When Elwood exits to meet his fate and loose his Pooka, the cabby explains to the family that other patients he has driven who are treated also lose their goodness, and become just like regular people – mean spirited and venal. That's why she wanted to be paid first - to get a bigger tip.

This scene is a clincher and saves the play. 

Maybe it is the writing, or perhaps the timing and delivery were a bit off, but it felt as though every character in this production were defining their role independently of each other. The chemistry worked reasonably well between Lyman Anderson, MD, (Erik Hellman) and Ruth Kelly, RN (Jennifer Latimore brought a grace to the role). Woditsch, Price, and A.C. Smith as William Chumley, MD didn’t make me laugh. And it seemed Jacqueline Williams was a too dour for the role of Judge Mara Gaffney - perhaps not a good casting choice.  

Kudos on the set and lighting. Harvey plays through June 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park

Published in Theatre in Review

 

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