Harvey was exactly what the nation needed when it premiered in 1944: Audiences during World War II fell in love with an invisible rabbit because, perhaps, he gave them hope for a kinder day ahead. The classic movie version starring the immaculate Jimmy Stewart premiered in 1950 to critical acclaim from post-war audiences. And although Harvey may no longer be of the moment, its run at the Guthrie is sure to melt hearts and produce smiles. I won’t let my bitterness over how Harvey won the Pulitzer Prize over Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 1944 interfere here. Harvey is what it is: a warm, amusing show about friendship, family, and eccentricity.
The proceedings center around Elwood P. Dowd (David Kelly), a man so kind and loving that he sees everyone he meets as a new friend. There’s only one thing wrong with him: His best friend happens to be a 6-foot-3.5-inch invisible rabbit by the name of Harvey. And his family is not happy with how Harvey has taken over their lives and home.
Scenic designer William Bloodgood makes use of the Wuertle Thrust Stage with two distinct sets rotating to transport the audience between a spacious, beautiful mansion and a disturbingly white mental hospital—the sanitarium where Dowd’s family tries to commit him. Where Dowd is compassionate, the sanitarium and its doctors are shown to be as hostile and selfish as the stark environs.
Kelly’s portrayal of Dowd fits like an amiable glove. But the real star here is Sally Wingert as Veta, Dowd’s sister. Veta is riddled with love for her brother, annoyance with Harvey, and the fact that she’s started to see this rabbit, too. Wingert is adept to play both extremes of Veta’s character and everything in between with an impressive stage presence. Sun Mee Chomet as Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae is a comic delight, with facial expressions reflecting both her displeasure for Harvey and her want for a man.
Harvey is not Tennessee Williams. And that’s OK, because it’s not meant to be—Harvey of course contains the trite romantic subplots one associates with comedies of the ’40s, but it is also filled to the brim with optimism. It seems like a show for everyone, old and young, with its bright characters, clever dialogue, and rabbit-related antics. One thing is for certain: Libby Appel’s staging of Harvey finds its own type of profoundness is its enduring compassion for humanity.
As Elwood P. Dowd so charmingly says, “One can never have too many friends.” And I think most of us will find a familiar but loveable one in Harvey.
By Mary Chase
Directed by Libby Appel
When: April 9 – May 15
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis
Featuring: Ansa Akyea, Sun Mee Chomet, Tyson Forbes, Steve Hendrickson, Michael J. Hume, David Kelly, Ashley Rose Montondo, Betty O’Connell, Greta Oglesby, Ryan Shams and Sally Wingert.