The character of Elwood P. Dowd takes about 5 minutes to convince the audience they wish they’d had one of whatever he’s just had.
Theatre Charlotte’s production of “Harvey” captures the amiable demeanor of Dowd, a gentleman’s gentleman who has found happiness in the company of a 6-foot-tall Pooka no one else can see. Pookas are shape-changers of Irish folklore. In this case, the Pooka is named Harvey, and he is a rabbit.
Unhappily, Dowd’s embrace of an imaginary friend elicits angst among his family and friends. It’s the 1940s, and Elwood’s sister Veta Louise and niece Myrtle Mae have come to live with him after mother died and left him the house. What to do with a crazy uncle when he owns the home the family depends upon for shelter? It’s an unseemly embarrassment for what was once a family of high social standing.
Poppy Pritchett plays the high-strung Veta Louise. Alternately hysterical (this could be turned down a notch) and sympathetic, she loves her brother but fears for her daughter’s social status. Lindsay Anderson plays Myrtle Mae, a typical teen, who wants her uncle committed because she can’t imagine living with such an odd-ball. She is strident and has no sense of humor.
The show is a pleasure when Elwood, played by Tony Wright, is on stage. He is delightful to watch. When the family tries to commit him to a psychiatric ward, all the elements of farce come into play to make everyone but him seem crazy.
The head psychiatrist, Dr. Chumley, is skillfully played by Tom Scott. While he is convinced the potential patient is a psychopath, he is enticed by Dowd’s unflappable character. Suzanne Newsome excels in her scene as Chumley’s wife.
The play languishes when the main character is not on stage. There’s a distracting love story between the hospital nurse and the doctor who’s second in command, and it’s elevated only when Elwood shines his hopeful countenance upon them.
The production values are admirable. Zachary Tarlton’s set changes from the formal parlor of the Dowd home, filled with stodgy portraits and shelves of knickknacks, to the serene blue walls and abstract paintings of an institution. The set changes are extraordinarily long and take place behind closed curtains to the tune of excellent ’40s swing tunes.
Emily Heilig’s costumes are spot on. Myrtle Mae’s pink ruffled dress and Veta Louise’s fur-trimmed coat evoke the era. Elwood is dapper in a sweater vest and tweed coat with elbow patches. Dr. Sanderson sports a dashing blue suit, and Nurse Kelly’s crisp, tailored, blindingly white nurse’s dress puts today’s scrubs to shame.
“Harvey” was written by Mary Chase and won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It played on Broadway in 1949, 1970, and 2012. Our understanding of mental illness has increased exponentially since this play was first performed, but there remain constants.
We fear what we don’t know, and we are threatened by unconventionality. In “Harvey,” Elwood explains his current state of mind by sharing advice his mother once gave him: “ ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart.” That’s an overrated characteristic, if it comes at the expense of Elwood P. Dowd acting pleasant.