It’s telling that Mary Chase’s Harvey won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945, the final year of World War II. The previous winner had been a metatheatrical chronicle of apocalypse, The Skin of Our Teeth; the next would be a satire about political corruption, State of the Union. But as Allied forces advanced on Berlin, the gentlemen of the Pulitzer committee chose to honor a light comedy centered on one Elwood P. Dowd, a wealthy small-town tippler whose best drinking buddy happens to be an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Clearly, folks were ready for a break.
When the award was announced, Lewis Nichols of the New York Times wrote, not unkindly, that Harvey “holds up the mirror to no part of present day life, and it will advance the state of the theatre not one inch.” He was right, of course, but missing the point. Harvey‘s structure may be conventional and its plot frivolous, yet as Devon de Mayo‘s new staging for Court Theatre demonstrates, the message is seductive. In so many words: Don’t worry. Be happy.
Elwood’s sister, Veta, and his niece, Myrtle Mae, are in no way happy when we first meet them. Elwood’s habit of introducing Harvey to everyone he encounters has had the effect of drying up their social life, along with Myrtle’s prospects for marriage. In this production, Karen Jane Woditsch’s Veta is beyond frazzled while Sarah Price’s Myrtle is straight-out hostile. They reach the last straw when Elwood ruins a tea. That’s it, they say, into Chumley’s Rest sanatorium he goes. Except things seldom work out as planned when there’s an invisible rabbit involved.
Timothy Edward Kane is probably best known for his tour de force as the tortured, tunnel-dwelling poet in Court’s An Iliad, first presented in 2011 and reprised in 2013. Here, he’s all courtly civility and amiable smirks, with a dancerly knack for physical comedy. Kane’s Elwood actually seems to move at a more generous pace than those around him. Two small, silent things he does—scooting over to make room for Harvey on a couch and dropping a pen into his breast pocket—are hilariously eloquent. Going in, I thought I’d have trouble forgetting Jimmy Stewart’s Elwoodian turn in the 1950 movie adaptation. I didn’t.
De Mayo’s production has its problems, mostly having to do with the contradictory ways in which she approaches the play’s period conventions. On the one hand, she accepts sexist tropes from the 40s (“dollpuss,” “beautiful and dumb”), not to mention a backward characterization of alcoholism. On the other, she asserts progressive values by casting black actors in roles for which they would never have been considered back then. The result is an occasionally jarring time warp. Still, given the overall command of everyone involved, and the deep sweetness of Chase’s comedy, it’s easy not to worry and just be happy. v