Review: Woodford Theatre's well-done 'Harvey' raises heady questions

rcopley@herald-leader.comFebruary 17, 2014 

  • 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. 21, 22, 28 and March 1; 2 p.m. Feb. 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.

VERSAILLES — Elwood P. Dowd is the most kind, polite, affable and considerate person we see in the small town he lives in. So, of course, he must be crazy.

Well, there is an oddity with Elwood. He is convinced that his best friend and constant companion is a 6-foot, 31/2-inch-tall white rabbit name Harvey. Being unfailingly polite, he introduces Harvey to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of his sister and niece, who just want to live normal lives with the respect of society.

So they attempt to have Elwood committed to a psychiatric hospital for good, and thus ensues the hi-jinks in Harvey, which The Woodford Theatre opened last weekend for a three-week run.

Under James R. Rodgers' direction, this production remains faithful to Mary Chase's original 1944 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and became a classic 1950 movie that starred Jimmy Stewart as Elwood and won an Oscar for best supporting actress for Josephine Hull as Veta, Elwood's sister.

There is no attempt here to bring the play forward from an era where $2.75 seemed to be an exorbitant price for a cab ride, but it is still a thought-provoking show about relationships, reality and fantasy, and which is better.

Woodford's Harvey features a unique turn in Lexington-area theater. Artistic directors usually step in as directors of plays. But Trish Clark, newly appointed as the permanent director of The Woodford Theatre after a year in the interim role, makes her artistic debut on stage in Versailles as Veta. It is her performance that gives the story credibility early on.

Veta and her daughter Myrtle are trying to make their entree into polite society by holding an afternoon recital at their home for an opera singer. All the society mavens are there, and the ladies think they have gotten rid of Elwood and his rabbit. But he soon comes home and starts working the room with Harvey.

That's enough. Veta and Myrtle are determined to have Elwood committed so they can get on with normal lives and get Myrtle married.

But when they get to the asylum, Elwood charms the staff, and Veta's blubbering, incoherent histrionics and an ill-timed admission she sometimes sees the rabbit convince one of the psychiatrists that she's the one who needs to be committed.

That's the first of a number of mixups and misidentities that drive the comedy of the show. But through it, this question arises: Yes, Elwood is unusual, but is he so intolerable that he should be locked away in what appears to be a harsh facility, forever?

Patti Heying's performance as Myrtle is particularly effective at turning sympathies toward Elwood. At some point, her desire to see Elwood locked up overwhelms her and becomes ugly.

At that stands in contrast to Eric Johnson's Elwood, infused with such a personal charm you really don't mind that he's introducing you to an invisible, oversize rodent. But he also makes Elwood wise, sparking questions about how this imaginary friend came about, if it is really a psychological problem or more of a shield Elwood has developed to fend off expectations he doesn't want to live up to. After all, he calls Harvey a pooka, an Irish spirit or ghost.

The show itself raises questions of how imaginary Harvey is.

Johnson, Clark and Heying have strong supporting cast, particularly Carmen Geraci as Dr. Sanderson, who makes the misdiagnosis of Veta, and Sherry Thompson as Ruth, the nurse who is having a tempestuous flirtation with Dr. Sanderson but is also susceptible to Elwood's charms.

Scenic designer Jerome Wills makes the most of a set of flats to effectively shift the action between the Dowd home and the psychiatric hospital. Another nice touch is the portrait of Elwood and Harvey painted by Johnson, whose day job is artist. Prints are for sale in the lobby, and it's tempting to take one home.

Or, maybe you just want to take home your own imaginary bunny. Elwood's world seems kind of nice.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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