WRESTLING WITH REALITY Mancini and Kneeland.
Mister Rogers is dead. Long live Elwood P. Dowd!
If there is anyone more genial and benignly inspiring than Elwood, he can only be found in one of the books your toddler insists you read at bedtime. Mr. Dowd is the hero of Mary Chase's comedy Harvey, which 2nd Story Theatre is giving a charmingly definitive staging through September 6.
Elwood has a special friend, you see, a 6'1/2" white rabbit he chats with and likes to introduce to people. This has been going on since the death of his mother, when his widowed sister Veta Dowd Simmons (Sharon Carpentier) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Erin Olson) moved in with him. (Why their mother would bequeath the Atlanta home and everything to Elwood is quite beyond his sister. Something silly like his being the only one to take care of her at the end.)
Young Myrtle Mae can't have her friends over because of her crazy uncle, and she wishes that a truck would take him out at some busy intersection. Hyper-conscious of social position, sister Veta also gives up on him when he insists on introducing Harvey to guests at the Wednesday lecture series she is holding at home to impress the local society editor. But rather than hire a truck driver, she decides to have him committed.
Actor Wayne Kneeland doesn't just perform Elwood, he inhabits the man. Climbs in and zips up. Kneeland presents a sweet and unflappable manner that epitomizes the sort of person the playwright is presenting: the kind of uncomplicated extrovert whom folks immediately take a shine to, who likes nothing more than to invite strangers to his favorite bar to get to know them, as Elwood is constantly doing.
"I've wrestled with reality for 40 years," Elwood states at one point. "I'm happy to say I finally won out over it." That's not exactly an attitude that can keep you out of a sanitarium, where his sister insists he be permanently committed. Because she foolishly admits to a psychiatrist that she has occasionally seen Harvey, she is the one who ends up being locked up — not before suffering the additional humiliation of being stripped by an orderly and plunged into a hydrotherapy tub. Most of the play consists of the sanitarium officials hysterically attempting to rectify this mistake.
Productions at 2nd Story are constantly reminding us that theater is not an elaborate set but rather a performance that makes such backgrounds fade away. Here scenery is merely suggested, by a Persian rug in the middle of the stage area and matching runners at three entrance paths. The costumes by designer Ron Cesario are beautifully explicit, however, down to the colorful period shoes.
It's the casting and the acting that makes this staging so perfectly wonderful, though. The performances begin at good and rise to marvelous, decorated with unexpected flourishes. For example, Ben Garcia gives the inauspicious role of Mr. Wilson, the sanitarium orderly, an undercurrent of exasperation that can make us laugh when he's just standing there. Jay Bragan's psychiatrist, Sanderson, is similarly almost bursting with frustration at every obstacle, which informs a mutual, unadmitted love/hate lust between him and Nurse Kelly (Rae Mancini), so deliciously ironic. And there is the crowning irony of the supposedly austere head of the sanitarium, Dr. Chumley (Tom O'Donnell), increasingly crazed by the gentle influence of Elwood — and Harvey.
The director, Ed Shea, told the opening night audience that he was "astounded" by the Taoist and Buddhist thought expressed in the attitude of Elwood P. Dowd. Perhaps that's vaguely accurate, and perhaps it's simply the "Don't worry — be happy!" sentiment of the Bobby McFerrin song. A helpful reminder either way.
Playwright Chase made sure that Elwood would identify Harvey to people as a pooka (puca), in mythology a fairy in animal form and with human speech. This was to establish that there was an actual source for the delusion he chose to indulge in after the death of his mother. Harvey hit Broadway in 1944, when the country was still embroiled in the suffering and mourning of World War II. What a wonderful reminder it must have been then, that the power of imagination can bring us back to our basic humanity.