Woodford Theatre goes with a time-tested comedy as new leader takes helm

Contributing Culture WriterFebruary 13, 2014 

Eric Johnson, who plays Elwood in Woodford Theatre's production of Harvey, is a Versailles artist. For the show's set, he painted this picture of himself as Elwood with his imaginary rabbit pal.

COURTESY OF ERIC JOHNSON

  • IF YOU GO

    Harvey

    What: The Woodford Theatre's production of Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1944

    When: 8 p.m. Feb. 14, 15, 21, 22, 28 and March 1; 2 p.m. Feb. 16, 23 and March 2

    Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Springs Art and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles

    Tickets: $19 adults, $12 students. Available at (859) 873-0648 or Woodfordtheatre.com.

There's a common expression in the performing arts: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

This might be especially true when trying to create a comedy that's timeless. Many comedies written for the stage decades ago might have been laugh riots, but they now are seen as dated, wince-worthy and laughably bad.

Unless, of course, you're talking about Harvey.

"If you think about it, there isn't an American comedy that's stood the test of time as well as this one has," said Jim Rodgers, director of The Woodford Theatre's production of Harvey, which opens this weekend. "Today, it's still a comedy, and that's very, very rare."

Although playwright Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play debuted during war-torn times, in 1944, its effect is unchanged each time it's brought to life for today's theater audiences.

The story centers on kind, likable Elwood P. Dowd (played in Woodford Theatre's production by Eric Johnson) and his imaginary friend, a human-size rabbit named Harvey. Elwood's presumably insane behavior prompts his sister Veta (Trish Clark) to have him committed. This leads to a comical case of mistaken identity at the sanitarium with Veta and Elwood, and Elwood's search for Harvey affects his family and the sanitarium's staff in strange, funny and profound ways.

Aside from the humor, Rodgers said, the eccentric yet relatable characters that surround Elwood have more to do with what continues to make Harvey thoroughly enjoyable than Elwood and his tall furry friend do.

"We see ourselves in all the roles except for Elwood. All the other characters are all messed up, and being messed up brings back a lot of memories," he said. "I would argue one of the main reasons (for the play's popularity) is its wisdom. It has a lot to say about how we live and how we should treat each other."

There will be several aspects to The Woodford Theatre's production that make this particular version of Harvey unique.

Johnson, who is playing Elwood, is a Versailles-based visual artist who has contributed a portrait of Elwood and Harvey as a set piece. The production also will be a showcase for Woodford Theatre's new artistic director, Trish Clark, who decided to play Veta as a way to acquaint herself with patrons.

"It's an introduction to the kind of artist I am. It's kind of like practicing what you preach. It's establishing some sort of credibility, so they're either going to find me credible or not," she said, then laughed.

Clark's participation in Harvey is also a creative reunion of sorts. Clark and Patti Heying, who plays Veta's daughter Myrtle Mai Simmons, performed those same roles 30 years ago, when Rodgers directed a production of Harvey for the University of Kentucky theater department.

"It's a great opportunity to be asked to direct the production again 30 years after you did it before and cast the same people," he said.

Clark adds, "All of us in the show are really reaping the benefits of this beautiful trip."

Blake Hannon is a Mount Sterling writer.

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