SALT LAKE CITY — There are some plays that simply stand the test of time and Mary Chase’s 1953 play Harvey is certainly one of them. Focused on a man named Elwood P. Dowd who’s best friend is an imaginary 6 ft 3.5 inch rabbit named Harvey, Chase will make you laugh with her delightful story and dialogue but also remind us all of the power of a little kindness. SLCC’s Grand Theatre is putting on Harvey and there could be no better way to celebrate Easter than to spend a little bit of time with Elwood and his rabbit friend Harvey.
As far as plot, Harvey is a pretty simple story. As I said, Elwood P. Dowd has a best friend named Harvey who is a pooka (a Celtic creature that brings good luck.) Elwood’s sister Veta is embarrassed by Harvey and she decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium after Elwood interrupts a party she throws early in the first act. Unfortunately for Veta everything goes wrong at the sanitarium including her being committed and Elwood being set free. It’s all very silly but funny and portrayed with joyful glee by the cast at The Grand.
Stage director Mark Fossen has done a great job building a sense of chemistry and family within the cast and getting just the right amount of zany energy from all involved. The highlight is the performances of Roger Dunbar as Elwood and Kristin Housley as Veta. Most people probably know about the story of Harvey from the 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull (who won an Oscar for the role.) and it would be easy to make a performance in the play copy of both of the film performances but that’s not what Dunbar and Housley do here. While the film is a very accurate transfer of the play, there was a sarcasm and a winking grin in Dunbar’s performance that set it apart. I honestly can’t imagine the role being done any better. It was a riot while still being comforting and sweet.
I also really enjoyed Angie Nicole as Miss Kelly who works at the sanitarium and Micky Goldstein as Doctor Chumley. He has a particularly memorable scene where he talks about his dream of going to Akron and drinking beer with a beautiful woman. It’s a terrific monologue, well acted by Goldstein.
Not only is Harvey amusing but it also has a lovely message we need perhaps now more than ever. Harvey seems to give Elwood the confidence to talk to anyone and be friends with anyone. He makes people feel special because he listens to what they have to say is genuinely curious for their experiences. As someone who interviews people for my job, I have seen interviewees light up as they begin to sense I am actually interested in their story. Elwood says “Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends”
Veta at the beginning of the play wants to change Elwood. She wants him to the same as everyone else but by the end she realizes that she and the whole town need him to be the kind, loving person he is- rabbit and all. What a lovely message! I love when Elwood says, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant…” Maybe the world would be better off if we all chose pleasant more than smart?
There are 2 impressive sets for the play designed by Scenic Designer Halee Rasmussen. The first is the Dowd home referred to as ‘the library’ in the program. This includes a mantle, painting of their Mother (which turns into a scene with probably the biggest laugh of the night when the painting gets subbed out for one with Elwood and Harvey), and a library and sitting area for the action to take place in. The second set-piece is at the sanitarium or Chumley’s Rest where they create a waiting area for a medical office very convincingly with several doors and sitting areas with a chaise lounge used for Veta and others spilling out their woes involving Harvey. They also do a very good job at creating Harvey as a presence in the show with doors opening with nobody present and Dunbar always making sure he makes space for Harvey whenever they are together.
If you want to see something heartwarming and full of laughs check out Harvey at The Grand Theatre on SLCC campus. The play may be over 70 years old, but it still has much to teach us about love and the value of a little kindness in this world.