(May 3, 2010) We’re so familiar with the classic film version of Harvey — we’ve owned copies in at least three different video formats — that it wasn’t easy at first to hear the familiar lines spoken last week in different ways by different actors on the Shaw Festival stage. But we got over it in short order. This one flies on its own merits.
Mary Chase’s Harvey is one of the great American plays. It won the Pulitzer and ran on Broadway for four years back in the 1940s, but we’d never before seen it on stage. This domestic comedy (with strong elements of fantasy and whimsy) is the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Peter Krantz), an amiable middle-aged man of no occupation who has failed to live up to his youthful promise after inheriting family money. Elwood spends most of his days drinking in bars with his “friend” Harvey.
Unfortunately for Elwood’s long-suffering sister Veta (Mary Haney) and niece Myrtle Mae (Zarrin Darnell-Martin), Harvey is a pooka, a six-and-a-half-foot invisible rabbit. Veta cannot introduce Myrtle Mae into society, where she might meet eligible young men, because Elwood has an unsettling habit of introducing his invisible friend to people he meets.
When Elwood appears unexpectedly at a ladies’ club concert in their home, guests scatter in alarm as Elwood introduces them to his invisible companion. That’s the last straw for Veta, who decides to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Rest (Dr. Chumley is played by the hilarious and inimitable Norman Browning), a sanitarium run mainly by his uptight assistant and fellow psychiatrist Lyman Sanderson (Gray Powell).
Can magical creatures like pookas be real? Can one man’s reality be different from another’s? Is escapism underrated? Harvey raises and answers metaphysical questions — but this production, directed by Joe Ziegler, downplays the thought-provoking elements of Harvey and goes for comedy. And although there’s a good deal of the supernatural in the play, Ziegler plays it for laughs as well. The scene where Dr. Chumley’s orderly, Mr. Wilson (Tim Ziegler) looks up the word “pooka” and finds the dictionary talking back to him, for example, might well be a “thrill-and-chill” moment, but the Zieglers (both director and actor) make it a light moment.
So how is this play different from the movie? For one thing, it’s more risque (although by contemporary standards that’s not saying much). In one scene, the tightly wound Dr. Sanderson tells Elwood that he and Nurse Kelly (Diana Donnelly) had made a “mistake” together earlier in the day; Elwood interprets this, in his diplomatic way, as a confession that the doctor and nurse had succumbed to sexual passion for one another. The movie version of Harvey contained no such suggestion — indeed, no suggestion that Elwood knew anything about carnality at all.
We heard some lines, especially early in the play, that we don’t remember hearing in the movie, and we missed some fine scenes that were evidently written just for the movie, especially a bar scene in which Elwood and Harvey order drinks from a bartender and talk to a down-and-out alcoholic friend who’s just gotten out of prison. The most striking difference between play and movie, however, is that the last scenes in the movie raise the possibility that the pooka might transfer his patronage from Elwood (who enjoys Harvey’s company for its own sake) to Dr. Chumley (who simply wants to take advantage of the pooka’s magical powers). And unlike the play, the movie ends with a bit of match-making. The movie director evidently thought that more “resolution” and less ambiguity was needed in a feature film.
This show won’t make us forget James Stewart and Josephine Hull (Elwood’s sister Veta in the movie), but it’s full of wonderful moments and has some marvelous acting, especially from Mary Haney, who is a much more clear-eyed and self-controlled Veta (and thus arguably a more effective foil to her brother Elwood) than Josephine Hull’s flustered character. We enjoyed Diana Donnelly as the sexually frustrated Nurse Kelly; Ms. Donnelly is well matched with Gray Powell as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the oblivious, professionally-absorbed object of her infatuation.
And speaking of sex, Mary Chase uses the sexually repressed Dr. Sanderson to make fun of Freudian psychiatry, which was very much in vogue back in the 1940s. The ease with which Dr. Sanderson diagnosed the perfectly sane Veta as a mental case reminded us of one of P. G. Wodehouse’s great minor characters, Sir Roderick Glossop, also a psychiatrist, who found everyone he met a candidate for the looney bin.
Less satisfying were the less experienced actors in the cast. Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae Simmons was played by Zarrin Darnell-Martin, whose acting seemed to us markedly short of professional standards. Jim Ziegler, as Dr. Chumley’s muscle-man Duane Wilson, seemed merely to have copied the mannerisms of the actor who played the part in the 1950 movie.
That brings us to Shaw Festival veteran Peter Krantz, who plays Elwood P. Dowd. It must not be easy to play a character who never becomes angry or excited and who, no matter how others treat him, remains smiling, courteous, pleasant, and oblivious — in other words, a character whose manner hardly changes throughout the play. (The only thing close to an emotion that Elwood is permitted is a hint of eagerness whenever he thinks someone is offering him a drink.) About Mr. Krantz’s generally capable performance we have mixed feelings.
Mr. Krantz is not our favorite Shaw Festival actor to begin with, a prejudice that dates from his role as a sexual deviant in a 2003 Shaw Festival show we did not enjoy, The Coronation Voyage, and as the lead actor in what was unquestionably the worst Shaw Festival show we’ve ever seen, 2005’s The Invisible Man. To us Mr. Krantz never seems quite wholly at ease; he has a certain watchful wariness about him that keeps us from being entirely comfortable when he’s on stage. To our minds, therefore, his is not a stage presence well-suited to play a character whose principal characteristics are utter affability and freedom from guile.
But if not Mr. Krantz, then who? The program includes a list of the 2010 Shaw Festival ensemble, and we went through it to look for other candidates for the role of Elwood P. Dowd. Michael Ball or David Schurrman? Too long in the tooth. Patrick Galligan? Too urbane. Ben Carlson? Too edgy. Benedict Campbell could have pulled it off. Our pick would have been the versatile, age-appropriate Blair Williams, who unfortunately is not appearing at Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer.
We saw last year that Stephen Spielberg planned to start shooting a remake of Harvey in early 2010, with Robert Downey, Jr. or Brad Pitts rumored as candidates for the role of of Elwood Dowd. We were glad to see in the Shaw Festival’s program that this thoroughly unnecessary project has died a natural death.
Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.