Harvey at the Guthrie Theater

David Kelly and Ensemble in Harvey. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

David Kelly and Ensemble in Harvey. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

It is best to digest Harvey (at the Guthrie Theater, though May 15) as a product of its time; a simple, good-natured, and tad bit naive send up of social mores and human eccentricity. Written as an antidote for the home front pains of World War II, Mary Chase’s play is an explicit call to levity in a time that was marked by solemnity.

Harvey tells the story of a middle-aged society man, Elwood P. Dowd, who befriended a 6’3’’ white rabbit named Harvey some years ago. Of course, no one else can see this rabbit. The family addition proves exasperating and socially devastating for Elwood’s beloved sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her daughter, Myrtle May, as they fear that Elwood may introduce others to his closest companion. Thus, Veta attempts to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium. Hijinx ensue.

None of Harvey would work without a magnetic turn from a leading man playing Elwood, and the Guthrie certainly gives its audience that with David Kelly, full of awe-shucks charm and earnest benevolence. He speaks with every other character as though they were the most interesting person alive, and the performance draws indomitable empathy from the players and audience alike.

Sally Wingert also continues to do solid work as Elwood’s sister Veta, who serves as the center of the play’s conflict, burdened with the decision of how to mitigate Elwood’s condition. It is her character that is most affected by her experiences, and Wingert aptly captures the internal strife between doing what is convenient and doing what is right.

The other players mainly serve to propel the madcap plotting and react to Elwood’s aloof demeanor. This is particularly true of Myrtle May, who despite Sun Mee Chomet’s apt comic timing, comes across as vindictive and one-dimensional. Others are more believable, but none really stand out as essential despite the obviously formidable talent within the cast. That said, special kudos are deserved for Peggy O’Connell, who in a throwaway part as a ditzy upper-crust woman provides some of the show’s most fluid and bubbly laughter.

Much of its breezy, broadly comedic delivery proves enjoyable, but it also tends to oversimplify such a thorny topic as mental illness, though this is perhaps to be expected from a show that predates modern ideas of psychology. It also doesn’t help that despite her snappy blocking and its breakneck pacing, Libby Appel’s direction tends to fall into the overly broad side of things.

Further, while the production features sharp set design (by William Bloodgood), the large, moving sets unfortunately result in belabored scene transitions that halt the production’s fevered movements. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Harvey from being eminently watchable and the ride is still fun enough. It consistently earns laughs, even if they are not entirely uproarious. After all, the play is a classic, and the lovable figure of Elwood P. Dowd, delivered with endearing charm in this rendition, is undoubtedly what will be fondly remembered.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on the site Movie Matrimony.

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