Encore Michigan

‘Harvey’ comes to Purple Rose with sweet wit

Review June 25, 2017 David Kiley

CHELSEA, Mich.–When Mary Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for her play Harvey in 1945, she won out over Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” among other plays. It seems like one of the great miscarriages of literary justice. Not because Harvey is a bad play. It isn’t. But all I can think is that with a world coming apart at the seams in World War Two, the committee preferred to reward this light, winsome story about an older bachelor who flatly refuses to surrender his innocence.

The Purple Rose Theatre’s production is just as sweet and winsome as the original, and the movie version featuring James Stewart that left an indelible mark on the American filmscape. Director Guy Sanville has wanted to produce the show for some 40 years, as it was the first show he ever directed in high school. Rights to the show were snarled up for years, though.

The story is pretty straight-forward. Elwood P. Dowd (Richard McWilliams), who lives with his high-strung sister (Michelle Mountain) and niece (Caitlin Cavannaugh), has an invisible best friend, a 6’ 4 white rabbit, named Harvey. The presence of Harvey makes life difficult for the ladies, and they start plotting to get Elwood committed at the local sanitarium with the hope of taking control of his house and money. Elwood drinks, but he is the friendliest drunk in the world, making friends wherever he goes and turning the most fleeting of acquaintances into a meaningful social interaction.

The action is more or less split between Elwood’s house–with the ever present portrait of his late Mother looking down on the proceedings, as well as the conniving activities of her daughter and granddaughter–and the sanitarium. There, Dr. William Chumley (Hugh Maguire) and his associate doctor Lyman Sanderson (Rusty Mewha), orderly/aide Duane Wilson (David Bendena) and nurse Ruth Kelly (Lauren Knox) are running an institution of dubious quality and credibility. Let’s not forget that the state of such places in the early 1930s and 40s was pretty abominable and the regulation of them even worse. When Elwood’s sister, Veta, tries to get him committed, they instead wrestle her to the ground with Wilson stripping off her clothes behind closed doors and sticking her into an isolation water bath.

There are several moments and turns of the story that are awkward and squirm worthy. The episode with Veta serves to show in clear-as-day terms who the “sick” one really is. Bendena seems to channel Dracula’s orderly Renfield as a intense, over-sexed, semi-violent odd-ball who should be committed himself instead of being the one who does the strapping in of others. One of the odd and uneven plot twists is when Myrtle takes an instantaneous hyper-attraction to the unshaven, scraggly, somewhat crazed Wilson, more than answering his own instant sexual attraction.

Maguire as the avuncular and much celebrated Dr. Chumley is creepy in his own right, seemingly wielding an uncomfortable amount of power over anyone whose relatives decide they are “not right” or “unwell.” Mewha’s Sanderson does well with presenting the character as seeming to be on Elwood’s side one minute and Chumley’s stooge the next. The sexual tension between he and Knox’s nurse Kelly is also the stuff of awkward squirm.

McWilliams is a superb Elwood, as easy going as a corn-cob pipe, genuinely interested and engaged with everyone and everything around him. Despite his fixation on and recognition of his big furry friend no one else can see, it is evident throughout the story that he is the only one on stage who really knows what he wants, what’s in his heart and how he wishes to live in peace and harmony with the world and his giant rabbit. Mountain as Veta transforms her character expertly to give her some genuine salvation and reclamation by the end of the story.

The theme of championing individuality over conventions couldn’t be more clear. Remember, this play was written in the early 1940s when the conversation in the country was very much about the individual versus the state and society. America was at war, the talk of communism and fascism was everywhere. Even so, Harvey does not seem dated. The theme is as relevant today as it ever was, and this production is a delight to take in–both for the performances and the time it takes to understand and appreciate the Elwood in all of us, and the desire we should all have somewhere in our souls to have a big white rabbit as a bestie.

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