Four years ago Steven Spielberg announced that he wanted to film a new version of Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy Harvey, still one of the longest-running non-musicals in Broadway history. The project stalled when Tom Hanks, Spielberg’s first choice for the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd, balked; Hanks said he did not want to walk in Jimmy Stewart’s shoes.
No such fear hampers director Roy Van Nordstrand and lead actor C.J. Young for Appleseed Productions’ revival of Harvey at the Atonement Lutheran Church. They blow away the memory of Stewart’s studied stammer and small-town drawl, and also scrub away the dextrose syrup from the 1950 movie version. They also sharpen the original play’s sharp, satirical edges, giving us a Harvey completely without whimsy.
Never forgotten, Harvey’s reputation has been on the rise in recent years. A production at Canada’s Shaw Festival two years ago became a surprise box-office hit. The women’s movement’s campaign to shine lights on women writers may have helped us to see what had been overlooked. Playwright Mary Coyle Chase, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Harvey, was a tough cookie. She was a newspaperwoman out of the Front Page school and in life talked like the Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday. Happily, under Van Nordstrand’s direction we can hear that “cut-the-crap” voice in several exchanges.
The action of Harvey is set among the aspiring almost-well-to-do in a small town somewhere in middle America. In an excellent exposition scene, while a dreadfully pretentious recital blares off stage, we see a driven mother and daughter outlining their grievances and sharpening their plans. Veta Louise Simmons (Anne Fitzgerald) is obsessed with her social status, and comely Myrtle Mae (Gina Fortino), with hormones rushing into her swelling libido, is looking for love. Both are enraged with the absent Elwood, Veta’s brother, whose carryings-on about an invisible rabbit named Harvey are making the family a laughingstock and driving away prospective swains.
No feminist ideologue, Chase throws her darts at both genders but does not spare the follies of female characters. Veta, for example, speaks in malapropisms, and her morbid gal pal Ethel Chauvinet (Kathleen Whipple) ponders the death of any absent person. In portraying Veta’s later humiliations, Fitzgerald puts flesh on what is written as a thin frame. Costume designer Wendy Pitoniak also makes all the women look like creatures who’d stepped out of a black-andwhite Life magazine or a Montgomery Ward catalog.
When Elwood (C.J. Young) appears, he turns out to be neatly dressed in a period double-breasted suit and a short, trimmed beard, uncommon in 1944. In his first monologue, he answers an unseen telephone solicitor who wants him to join a “club.” That would mean signing up for two magazine subscriptions at the cost of $6.25 (hey, this was 69 years ago). The soul of patience and graciousness, Elwood wriggles out of the “club,” wishes the woman well, and invites her over for dinner. All of which poses three questions: Is Elwood superhumanly polite? Or is he nuts? Or possibly a put-on? All three may be entertained.
Young’s Elwood is often funny but never tells a joke. He speaks with the earnestness of a Rotarian addressing a great moral question. Not only does Young jettison Jimmy Stewart’s mannerisms, he evokes no clear antecedent.
If you strain you can hear echoes of Peter Sellers’ ambiguously unexpressive Chance in Being There (1979) with just a hint of Douglas Rain’s serenely calm voice as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Elwood’s utter blandness disarms potential adversaries just as it infuriates Veta. Young also gives Elwood considerable physical stature. Consequently, the unseen Harvey who used to stand 6-foot- 2 has shot up to 6-foot-8.
In the second and third acts the scene shifts to a nearby sanitarium, Chumley’s Rest, with a subplot plus elements of farce. Veta wants Elwood committed, but in a switch worthy of the Marx Brothers is confined herself. The two medicos in charge do not inspire confidence, the younger but clueless Dr. Sanderson (Alan Stillman) and the older, full-of-himself Dr. Chumley (Peter Moller), along with the handsome but aggressive orderly Duane Wilson (Steve Smith). The coolest head in the place is also the prettiest, Nurse Ruth Kelly (Heather Roach).
Dr. Sanderson is trying to get something going between the two of them, but Dr. Chumley’s affections are turned entirely toward himself. Once we meet his klaxon-voiced wife (Betsy York), this becomes more understandable.
Plot lines shoot in different directions, including the law in the person of Judge Omar Gafney (Ronald Van Nordstrand), when a plain-spoken man of the people, taxi driver E.J. Lofgren (William Edward White), dissolves all the tensions. He’s only looking for his fare, but he’s innocent of all pretensions.
Director Roy Van Nordstrand returns Harvey as a gentle subversion of WASP rectitude and the bitch-goddess of getting ahead. The cutting edge of that subversion is the play’s Irishness. Harvey, Elwood tells us, is a Pooka (Gaelic as púca), the playful figure of Irish folklore. All the joy-killers are WASPs (Simmons, Wilson and Chumley), while all the favored people have Irish names, including neighbor McIlhaney, Doctor McClure, bartender McNulty, Nurse Kelly and Dowd himself. Dowd embodies all the defects that used to be attributed to the Irishmen: He’s an unashamed idler and tippler. So lift up your Guinness and relax.