Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
After a reputed 50 rewrites in two years, Harvey opened to rave reviews in November of 1944, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945. Ironically, the unfortunate neighbor who roused Chase's imagination into creating what is considered her greatest work, had disappeared by the time Harvey neared completion, and Chase never saw, or heard of her again.
The opening moments of Harvey give little hint of the chaos to come. Ostensibly a tale of Elwood P. Dowd, a well-to-do, exceptionally sociable, somewhat tipsy eccentric, who is part of a prosperous household in mid-century America, along with his widowed sister and her daughter. However, when Elwood's behavior becomes detrimental to both Veta's social status and Myrtle Mae's marriage prospects, Veta resolves to have Elwood committed to the local sanitarium. This way she can take charge of the family finances, preserve her prominent societal position, and avoid the humiliation of being left with a musty old maid on her hands. An unremarkable storybut when the author is the youngest child of impoverished Irish immigrants, whose four benevolent bachelor uncles nourished her with tales rich with mythical folklore and wisps of almost forgotten legends from her parents' native land, it should surprise you not at all what happens as the tale unfolds.
When director Nancy Sellin decided upon Harvey for this Adobe Theater production, she wanted to stay as close as possible to Chase's script. Cognizant of how attitudes deemed acceptable in earlier decades are now offensive, if not illegal, and aware of how humor ought not be at the expense of any one societal segment, Sellin more than succeeds in dispelling the specter of prejudice and misogyny, retaining Harvey as imaginative, witty and endearing, while continuing to hold true to the author's intent. Together with her wonderfully diverse but cohesive, talented cast, Sellin gifts us a spirit in animal form, reminding us to not allow our desire for financial success and/or community endorsement to transcend our true purpose both as a society and as individuals: to love and care for those who care for us, regardless of status or position. And to accept the occasional oddball.
Not even on a good day does perennial socialite Veta Simmons exude sororal affection. And today is not a good day. A heavy cloud of spinsterhood hovers over her avaricious and somewhat vacuous daughter's head, and said daughter, Myrtle Mae, is oblivious to the sacrifices her mother has endured and is enduring, as she desperately tries to launch her ungrateful offspring into the upper echelons of marital opportunity. One "sacrifice" is singing with more enthusiasm than talent, regrettably blessed with vigorous lungs and a voice like a scalded cat tied to a melodeon trying to claw its way out of a basement. Other societal doyennes, their appeal directly linked to their familial connections to eligible young men, are appreciating each other with seasoned spite when calamity, in the form of Elwood P. Dowd, gentleman, arrives.
Ingenuous and sincere, since inheriting the family fortune, Elwood P. Dowd has eschewed worldly doctrines, enfolding all in his egalitarian embrace. For, while in his head (it is a discussion for another day about the appalling mental health management of the day, and the differing care and conduct accorded to men and womenthis is not the plays primary focus) Elwood walks with kings, it is the harsh reality of the crowds with the common touch that irks his poor sister Veta. And she is soon to discover the truth of the old Irish maximthere's nothing so bad that it couldn't be worse. You see, Elwood P. Dowd has a best friend, Harvey. They met one day when Elwood just happened by Harvey leaning against a street lamp and, since then, the two have been inseparable. They spend a lot of time in Charlie's Place and many other neighborhood watering holes, imbibing and socializing with the local citizenry. That Elwood is the only one who can see Harvey doesn't bother either Elwood or Harvey.
But by inadvertently ruining Veta's high society soiree, they become her nemesis. Well, perhaps not inadvertentlyHarvey (his name, which just happens to be Elwood's favorite, derives from the old Breton, meaning "Battle worthy"), is a púca: a theoretically mythical, definitely anthropomorphic (today taking the form of a very tall rabbit) Irish imp. Púcas are full to the brim of loving devilment and mischief, seen only by the few notables with unfettered minds and the gift of tangential vision. And there is no doubt Elwood is one of the few. And, therefore, so are we. Unfortunately, so is Veta, and this leads to her, instead of her brother, being restrained in the asylum. Elwoodno doubt it's a coincidence his name springs from a source meaning "elf rule"is now deemed the rational sibling. He roves merrily about, his good-natured personality warming all he encounters.
Chase shows a particular talent for character development. It is remarkable how in the space of a couple of hours, almost everyone smoothly undergoes a radical transformation.
Micah Linford is Elwood P. Dowd, and he handles this responsibility with care, grace, and endless warmth. Similar to Jimmy Stewart in the 1952 movie, his Elwood is also charming and considerate, with beautiful manners. Linford plays to the play, not to the audience. There is no hint of an inside joke or collusion through the fourth wall. As the play and the chaos progress, the slamming doors and raised voices of others contrast sharply with Elwood's continuing gentle, polite behavior. Intentionally, Linford sidesteps a potential "simple-minded" performance, and it is revealed to us though another character's reminiscences that Elwood deliberately chose this new life, having been at one time a successful businessman and a society darling. Always loving and considerate of those around him, Linford gently restrains Elwood's natural buoyancy, yet his casual shrugs in Harvey's direction indicating his bemusement or his quick nod of acknowledgement to his invisible friend make us easily suspend reality. In no time Harveywhether a figment of alcohol fueled imaginings, cerebrally created to escape the burden of reality, or an actual six-foot+ tall magical rabbitexists. Linford has a particularly attractive, almost boyish smile which he uses to great effect in his interactions with Harvey. I still wonder who he is thinking of, when, upon rediscovering his friend after a short absence, he flashes a smile which would soften anybody's heart.
The unfortunate Veta, played by Carolyn Hogan, is maligned, neurotic, and disintegrating emotionally from almost every perspective. When the cast list for Harvey was published, I wasn't totally convinced I could reconcile Hogan with the Veta I had in my head, who was considerably rotund with a somewhat lethargic intellect. However, though I'm rarely glad to be proven wrong, with Hogan, I am yet to be sorry. Carolyn Hogan is a spectacular Veta. With great comic forte, she dominates and guides every scene she is in. At the performance I attended, her performance had the entire audience almost crying with laughter every time she made an entrance, and sometimes even when she exited. Hogan is hilarious, every move perfectly planned with flawless timing and execution. Veta's emotional collapse is hilarious, a muddled mixture of passion and pique. One particular entrance provides such a stark contrast to her usual poise and aplomb, we are momentarily taken aback. Then, as she frantically recounts her ghastly experiences in the hydrotherapy room with innuendo so fraught with neglected desire, we, through Myrtle Mae's (hysterical?) semi-sincere and rather salacious promptings, see both women to be uproariously and significantly unfulfilled. Yet in the end, with Harvey's help and a new understanding of her own sincere values, Veta too acquires the wisdom to recognize and embrace what is truly essential in her life.
Dr. William R. Chumley is a delightful, superior, phobic psychiatrist with more neuroses than a ward full of his own patients. Lewis Hauser, a television and movie actor who recently relocated from California, slips into the role beautifully. His character spans from a doctor with an overdose of unwarranted self-esteem, who names the sanitarium after himself ("Chumley's Rest"), through the rigors of an almost apoplectic seizure, all the way to a reflective, more insightful man. Hauser has real stage presence, and I ended up feeling quite sorry for his Chumley.
Sarah Kesselring is perfect as Myrtle Mae Simmonscould it be happenstance the myrtle plant is sacred to both Aphrodite and Venus? Her self-centered reactions to a variety of aggravations are consistently maddening and right on targetthat she is attracted to the base nature of the almost criminal Wilson indicates that the lack of gentleman suitors may be through no fault of Elwood.
It is surprising to see Joel Miller cast as Wilson. But it is very interesting and funny to see him as the villain: violent, loping, uncouth in every aspect, except for his name, medieval in origin and meaning "desire." I'll leave you to figure out for yourself where he'll end up.
Nurse Ruth Kelly, played by Megan Pribyl, also a television and movie actress whose decade away from the stage is unfathomable, initially presents as a rather cowed, impressionable, self-deprecating young woman. Is it surprising that as the name Kelly means "warrior," she swiftly transforms into a confident, emotionally independent professional who makes her love interest's (Eric Werner) eyes pop out of his head when she sashays across the stage? And that her love interest's name, Lyman, translates from the Germanic, to mean "beloved man," tells me Chase had a terrific sense of humor.
In addition to her wonderful stage work, Carolyn Hogan also costumed the entire castas usual, they are picture perfect. The set is perhaps a little less opulent than expected, considering the settings are the library of a family mansion and the waiting room of a well-appointed, and one would assume expensive, private facility. The props work with the setting. But the directorial decision to have the play in two acts rather than the scripted three makes a very positive difference. That I didn't really notice the sound and lights except they were where they were supposed to be, means they went swimmingly. So well done all.
By now it may be apparent I really enjoyed this play. Maybe the real appeal of Harvey is the hope, the faint promise of the enchanting realm we knew as children to be true. Maybe it's a quick cool breeze on an otherwise sleepy day, or a whisper of a cherished memory which makes you smile in your sleep. The fairytale magic wish so we too could have our own Harvey, and revel in the truth of C.S. Lewis' words: "Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained."
Harvey, through September 22, 2019, at The Adobe Theatre, 9813 Fourth St. NW, Albuquerque NM. Friday and Saturday evenings performances start at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. General admission $20, discount price of $17 for seniors, students, ATG/PBS Members, military, first responders. Pay what you will Thursday, September 19, at 7:30pm. For reservations, call 505-898-9222 or visit adobetheater.org.