Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players in Owego open their 2013-2014 season with a familiar three-act comedy, Harvey by Mary Chase. The title character, as most people know, is a rabbit, a very tall rabbit, that nobody else but Elwood P. Dowd can see. Well, maybe.
We follow a few days in the lives of Elwood, a single man; his widowed sister, Veta Louise, and her pretty young daughter, Myrtle Mae. The ladies want Elwood committed to a mental institution, Chumley’s Rest, so that they can sell his Iowa home and rededicate themselves to their social agenda somewhere else. They don’t seem to appreciate the kindness Elwood(Ryan Kay) showed them when he took them in.
The story is told through the lens of mental healthcare in the 1940s, when modern psychiatry was still fairly new, when handsome doctors chased pretty nurses and psychiatrists were considered god-like creatures who could cure any mental manifestation with an injection of their newest formula and who were sometimes crazier than their patients.
Elwood’s fondness for a bigger-than-life bunny isn’t working too well for Veta (Brenda Aulbach) and Myrtle (Annie Fabiano). The actresses seem to understand the comic angle of these two characters but, at an opening weekend performance, delivered their lines as if they hadn’t quite nailed them yet. As the run continues, all the actors undoubtedly will have warmed to their roles and their audiences, and will have fixed some of the timing and script issues, which are minor. A little more voice projection for the people up on the higher tiers of the bistro seating would be good, too.
Kay all but channels the cinematic Elwood, Jimmy Stewart, as our “hail-fellow-well-met” hero. He will make friends with anyone who will take his calling card and uses them like a 1940s version of the “add friend” button on Facebook. However, he makes it clear that Harvey is his very best and most devoted friend.
We get a clue about his indiscriminate “friending” when he asks a phone solicitor selling magazines (he buys subscriptions for both him and Harvey) to a party his niece has planned at his inherited home. This doesn’t go over very well with Veta and Myrtle, who begin their plan to have him committed to Chumley’s Rest.
Of course, while describing her brother to the intake person, Veta lets it slip that she sees the rabbit, too, and the men in their clean white coats take her “upstairs” to begin her stay there with a hydrobath, which I think must have been like an early Jacuzzi, to calm her nerves. Although she complains about the treatment later, you can tell it was the best thing that had happened to her in a very long time. Myrtle Mae is giddy just to know if the orderly who administered it was good looking and could she have all the details. This is one of the funniest scenes in the play.
I love Elwood’s willingness to turn acquaintances immediately into good friends, but he finds out that almost everyone is a phony and doesn’t really want to get to know him. That’s why Harvey is so important to him. The clearly alcoholic Elwood doesn’t require anything from Harvey except to be his companion.
When Elwood meets new eople, even head psychiatrist, Dr. William R. Chumley and his wife, Betty (played brilliantly by James Osborne and the incomparable Judy McMahon), he asks them to join him at one of several pubs for a drink. Betty is flattered by the invitation, but William takes him up on it and almost doesn’t return to his stuffy, professional life as the head of Chumley’s Rest. He starts to see Harvey, too, and wants to keep the “pooka” for himself! (We eventually find out what a pooka is, but I won’t spoil that here.)
Kenneth David Barton as Dr. Chumley’s eager young assistant, Dr. Lyman Sanderson, and Kristina Jackson as the pretty nurse, Ruth Kelly, are funny and flirtatious, and I loved her 40s style. Other cast members — the busybody friend, Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet (Jane Nichols); the lascivious orderly, Duane Wilson (Shane Smith), and the long-suffering judge and attorney, Omar Gaffney (Irving Cook) — are all fine in their supporting roles, but my favorite is cabbie E.J. Lofgren, played believably by Robert E. Dunphy. He looks a little like Garrison Keillor, and his few minutes on stage are worth watching.
I suppose some of the themes have been explored and done to death a million times since this “old chestnut” was first produced. But themes are themes, and if you want to talk about loneliness, longing, greed, alcoholism, delusion, familial embarrassment and, what happens when people put on airs, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvey has all of these covered in what the program says is “a charming and uplifting comedy about one of the theater’s most lovable characters.”
IF YOU GO: Harvey, directed by Shaw Yetter, will be presented 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 .m. Sundays through Oct. 20 at the Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center, 42 Delphine St. Owego. The theater, if you have never been there, is a little out of the way, by the railroad tracks. Just follow the signs that Ti-Ahwaga puts out on the surrounding streets, and you’ll get there just fine. It’s a beautiful facility, set up with half bistro tables like the Cider Mil Playhouse. The carrot cake (an appropriate treat) is delicious, and the table service was great. Tickets are $18 (students with ID, $10 on Fridays; ages 60 and over, $15 on Sundays). Call the box office at 687-2130, or visit www.tiahwaga.com.