Raven Theatre Company

Whatever happened to all the imaginary friends we had as kids? Did they all end up in some limbo where they started making friends with each other, or, like Peter Pan, did they transfer their affections to a new generation of make-believers? Anyway, they’re no longer there when you need them — unless you’re Elwood P. Dowd, and your almost constant companion is a six-foot rabbit for whom you set a place at the table and buy theater tickets, and with whom you converse with rapture as you drink yourself into a better world.

Winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, Mary Chase’s Harvey was originally conceived as a theatrical escape during the worst days of World War II, in the same spirit as A rsenic and Old Lace, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Topper, and Miracle on 34th Street — all stories in which fantasy wins out over a predatory reality. Working from the story of the pooka (a mythical Gaelic creature, usually large, that liked to befriend humans), Chase originally saw Harvey as a canary. Two years and an astonishing 50 rewrites later, Harvey had become the overgrown Easter bunny he’s been ever since. As for Elwood, he was supposedly based on childhood advice the playwright got from her mother: “Never be unkind or indifferent to a person others say is crazy. Often they have deep wisdom.”

Gentle, self-effacing, contagiously cheerful Elwood seems perfectly ordinary, except for the invisible company he keeps. His frazzled sister Veta tries to have him committed–she has a selfish, social-climbing daughter named Myrtle, and fears Elwood will spoil her chances of landing a rich husband. (Elwood also owns the house they live in; not at all incidentally, it reverts to Veta if Elwood is institutionalized.)

Instead, Veta winds up in the loony bin, and complications swirl as the flustered shrinks, discovering they bagged the wrong loony, grab their net to go after Elwood. But, once he meets Elwood, chief psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (a virtual malpractice specialist) himself starts to fall for the fantasy. After all, Elwood does have a sort of low-level clairvoyance he says he gets from Harvey (a creature who also has the ability to stop clocks while you take trips wherever you want for as long as you need). Besides which, when Harvey’s around, more than one door opens with, well, no one attached to it.

The inevitable crisis sees the reluctant Dr. Chumley about to administer an injection that will cure Elwood of Harvey (curiously nearly the same dilemma facing Dr. Dysart in Equus). Will Veta — who now knows what happens to those sad folks whose illusions end with Chumley’s injections — let this happen to her harmless, happy brother, a man who “wrestled with reality for 40 years before he finally won out”? Well, maybe not everyone’s seen the movie.

Which brings up the question of why Raven Theatre Company would want to revive a play that has Jimmy Stewart stamped all over it. After all, Chase’s spoof of psychiatry is pretty familiar stuff, the love interest (between Nurse Kelly and young Dr. Sanderson) is pure formula, and the play moves much more sedately than the screwball film. Maybe Raven ran its risk because Harvey can still work as a warmly textured period piece filled with cozy character parts — provided the casting is right.

Director Michael Menendian must have known he’d found the right actors (as he certainly did last summer in The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia). Though older than Stewart’s Elwood, Wantland Sandel brings to the rodent lover as unflappably chipper a disposition as Peter Sellers’s Chauncey the gardener. Happily possessed, Sandel’s Dowd radiates the kind of contentment only a perfect imaginary friendship (or is it?) can provide. Much like Billie Burke at her most ditheringly flustered, Lucina Paquet is a wonderful Veta, splendidly silly and seemingly transported straight from Chase’s period (here updated slightly to 1953). Equally on the money, JoAnn Montemurro as the venal daughter Myrtle (the most vicious offspring since Joan Crawford’s whelp in Mildred Pierce) scowls with the sourest puss this side of Jimmy Swaggart.

The supporting parts sometimes suffer from the luxuriating leisureliness of Menendian’s staging, though Kathleen O’Grady as Nurse Kelly has all the pert warmth of Maureen O’Sullivan (who played many similar roles). Not exactly burdened with stopwatch comic timing, Terence Gallagher’s neurasthenic Dr. Sanderson goes into conniptions a bit too automatically, but he never drops the energy. Closer to the mark is Larry Wiley as the increasingly sympathetic Dr. Chumley, a role treacherous with tough transitions that Wiley handles with aplomb. Gravel-voiced Jack Cohen depicts Veta’s irascible lawyer with precision, Carol Whelan simpers well in two society-lady roles, James Thoresen menaces with gusto as a sadistic orderly, and Terry Cullers has a telling cameo as a cabdriver with some essential eleventh-hour exposition to relate. With only a few prop changes John Munson’s clean and proper set cleverly shifts from Elwood’s parlor to the sanitarium offices.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.