Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey” is set to dazzle at the Walnut Street Theatre. The two-and-a-half-hour long play, which runs at the Walnut until March 6, is a unique comedy-drama whose protagonist, Elwood P. Dowd (played by the very charming Ben Dibble), has a special story — his best friend is an invisible six-foot-three-inch tall invisible bunny named Harvey.
Right from the very beginning, the audience was entertained with Dowd’s gimmicks. Five minutes before the show began, Dowd stomped around the audience seats asking if anyone had seen his friend Harvey. I happened to be one of the many people to whom he handed a souvenir card with his number, on which he left instructions to call if we saw Harvey. People familiar with the plot were in on the joke and cherished Dibble’s charming rendition of Dowd.
The first scene, which opened at the shared house of Dowd and his sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Mary Martello), showcased a beautiful Victorian set with all its ubiquities – a colorful shelf of books, antique furniture, a grand painting and of course, a large social gathering (which occurs in “another room” that the audience does not see). There may be times during which the play lost a little momentum, but two things stealthily kept the audience’s eyes glued to the stage — Dowd’s debonair performance and the delightful sets.
Dowd’s entry onto the stage was cleverly executed. He seated himself among the audience and when the phone on the stage rang, he asked “Shouldn’t someone get this?” and proceeded to casually walk on-stage. The director of the play, Bob Carlton, adapted Chase’s play to make it more interactive and engaging with the audience.
In the next few scenes, hilarity ensued when Dowd tried introducing his invisible friend, Harvey, a “pooka” (a mythical creature in Irish folklore which can take a form of horses, goats, or, you guessed it, rabbits), to everyone at the party. His sister, embarrassed by Dowd’s antics, believes he is coming in the way of her finding a suitable match for her daughter Myrtle Mae (Ellie Mooney). Veta decides to enroll her brother at a sanatorium for psychiatric treatment where she meets Dr. Sanderson (Ian Merrill Peakes) and nurse Ruth Kelly (Lauren Sowa). The scenes at the sanatorium were some of the funniest and the most comically adept scenes in the play, in which Dr. Sanderson lets Dowd go and ends up believing that Veta is the one who needs help.
The second half of the play, while retaining its comedy, transitioned toward a somber drama to tug at the heart of the audience. When the staff at the sanatorium realize their mistake and go looking for Dowd, it is for his sister to decide if she wants her brother the way he is, or the way the society thinks people ought to be. The play has its comedic moments, and then, it has its dramatic ones, but it does not confine to any genres. “Harvey” does not rely on cheap slapstick that might induce a couple laughs, and it definitely does not rely on cliched drama; what ultimately lies at the heart of the play is how closely it reflects the human condition.
Are we the conformist sheeple who abide by an unspoken authority or are we individuals whose idiosyncrasies make them as much human as does their alikeness to each other? “Harvey” brings forth an old piece of wisdom by infusing it with the reality of Dowd’s story — here is a man who embarrasses his family by introducing his invisible best friend to strangers. It is ultimately up to his family to decide if they can accept him the way he is, or make him into the society’s “normal.” Whatever their decision might be, you will not be disappointed by this heartwarming tale.