Steppenwolf Theatre

at the Apollo Theater Center

In Steppenwolf Theatre’s staging of Mary Chase’s Harvey, the audience catches only a momentary indirect glimpse of the invisible six-foot-tall rabbit whose improbable existence motors the play’s plot. At the end of the second of three acts, an offstage door opens to cast the looming shadow of a tall, long-eared figure over the empty, darkened set. The rest of the time, the rabbit is invisible to everyone sitting in the audience.

But the other actors in Steppenwolf’s revival of this 1944 comedy seem acutely aware of the rabbit’s presence, judging from the muted deference they bring to the production. Despite the presence of some of Chicago’s best character actors, Harvey plays like a star vehicle without a star, in which the supporting actors deliberately work below their form in order to spotlight the unseen fellow playing the title role.

The problem, of course, is that the play is not a star vehicle for a rabbit. The hero of Harvey, who’s present and visible throughout the play, is Elwood Dowd, a sweet-natured, perpetually inebriated bachelor whose mother’s death has left him both wealthy and alone. Into the void in Elwood’s life has walked Harvey, a pooka–a supernatural Celtic creature that takes peculiar animal forms, in this case that of a humanoid rabbit. Harvey, visible only to Elwood, is dismissed as a delusion by Elwood’s social-climbing sister Veta and her incipient old maid of a daughter, Myrtle Mae. Increasingly embarrassed and enraged at Elwood’s seemingly nutty behavior, the two women plan to have him committed to the local booby hatch, then to sell his rambling old house in order to finance Myrtle Mae’s desperate hunt for a husband. But the plan backfires, and Veta, not Elwood, is deemed in need of psychiatric incarceration. As humorist James Thurber–whose whimsical spirit of misanthropy permeates this play–warned in his Fables for Our Time, don’t count your boobies before they’re hatched.

Steppenwolf seems to have been looking for a Christmas cash cow as its winter offering, a well-known light comedy to attract audiences in a holiday mood. Harvey would seem to fit the bill, with its collection of eccentric characters and its miracles-can-happen story line. But the production also indicates a desire to explore some of the darker nuances in this fanciful comic tale. Elwood may represent all the underappreciated dreamers in our midst–the nonconformists and eccentrics whose alternate realities may be more real than the reality society accepts–but he’s also an alcoholic and a very lonely man. A frequenter of seedy bars, he tends to invite just about anyone he meets home for dinner; it’s a sweet habit, and it leads to some cute comic complications in Chase’s superbly constructed, still-solid script, but it’s also a symptom of quiet desperation.

As Elwood, Randall Arney seems to want to explore both his character’s daffy sweetness and his melancholy isolation; rather than suggesting a complex character, however, the two qualities simply cancel each other out (which is a real disappointment given that Arney is working under the direction of Austin Pendleton, whose own work as an actor has often succeeded along similar lines). Arney’s Elwood seems less inebriated than anesthetized, less visionary than lobotomized as he meanders vaguely around Kevin Rigdon’s handsome set, a wood-paneled drawing room that shifts from Elwood’s home to the Chumley’s Rest sanatorium with an efficient flip of the painting that hangs over the fireplace.

Most of the other actors seem similarly drained, unsure whether to play their parts as screwball-comedy caricatures or real people trapped by real, empty values. They range from Rondi Reed’s Veta, erratically swerving between near-tragedy and farce, to Sally Murphy’s scrunch-shouldered, one-note nerd of a niece, to John Gegenhuber’s coarsely bullying hospital attendant, to Robert Breuler’s huffing and puffing stock villain of a psychiatrist, to Jeffrey Hutchinson and Linda Emond’s bland and aimless romantically inclined doctor and nurse. The only real sparks of personality and vitality come from three too-brief appearances–by Peggy Roeder as a flamboyant society matron, Del Close as a pompous judge, and Patrick Clear as the cabdriver who alerts Veta to Elwood’s precious qualities. If only the idiosyncratic energy that lifts these bit parts into memorable cameos had found its way into the principal actors, Steppenwolf’s Harvey might have been a production of real sparkle and distinction; instead, it’s a dutiful, slightly dreary affair. No wonder the rabbit doesn’t bother to show his face.