BWW Reviews: HARVEY Is a Bounding Success at Vagabonds
Performance loves Fells Point, and the feeling is mutual. In continuous revolving productions one can see live bands, local 'ghost' tour guides and not one but two historical theatre venues. Vagabonds, in its 98th season, is snuggled in among the shops and taverns of the waterfront area of Fells Point. It's a tightish space, so wear your small hat and leave the giant shoulder pads at home.
The Sunday matinee crowd (notorious among actors as Naptime Of The Elders) turned out to be lively and responsive to the spirited performances of the well-chosen cast. Director Sherrionne Brown, whose capable grooming gave gloss to EQUUS at Spotlighters this past spring, fluffs this old-fashioned favorite into a charmingly fresh two-hour engagement. When HARVEY debuted on Broadway in 1944, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and has been a crowd-pleasing favorite ever since.
Action of the show takes place in the mid 1940s. The opening set, the Dowd family library, is a delightful concoction of Victoriana, so intricate that a set change seems unlikely if not impossible. The library, with its sturdy fireplace, imposing fern-topped bookcases and curly chandelier immediately announces the sensibilities of its inhabitants. The ladies of the house do not disappoint: Miss Myrtle Mae Simmons and her mother, Veta Louise, are pompously stuffy in their distraught anxiety over the possible entrance of their embarrassing relative, Elwood P. Dowd, the home's owner.
Roy Hammond as Elwood has a goofy, lanky earnest charm, and he reminded me pleasantly of Ralph Nader. His attachment to his friend Harvey, a pooka, is genuine. His manners are unforced. His excitement about living in the present moment is admirable and unironic. He assumes the best of his family, niece Myrtle Mae and sister Veta, even (perhaps especially) when they don't deserve it. The role of Myrtle Mae was shared by two actors, Karina Ferry and Stephanie Ranno, the latter of whom gave a believable brattiness to Myrtle in the show I watched. It was Joan Crooks, however, whose spot-on comic timing as the frustrated would-be society gentlewoman Veta Simmons, threatened to steal the show.
After a series of humiliating incidents, Veta resolves to "do something" about her brother. This leads to a surprisingly short set change, which received its own well-deserved round of applause. Congratulations to set designers lead actor Roy Hammond and Jill-of all trades Sherrionne Brown. Regina D'Alessandro, who brings adorable confusion to the tiny role of Miss Johnson, the Dowds' maid, also plays a stagehand in this production.
The second set, Chumley's Rest, is chock-a-block with doorways, a hallway beyond, a window for peeking and overhearing, and is full of clever pieces from the first set that have been turned around to be other things. At Chumley's Rest, we meet Chris Cotterman as young Dr. Lyman Sanderson. Cotterman delivers the standard straight man with faultless commitment, though the chemistry between himself and Nurse Kelly (Amy McQuin) seemed a bit flat. Phil Gallagher as Dr. William Chumley was familiar, since I'd seen him playing Dr. Martin Dysart in EQUUS in May. He handles the role capably, and evidently at short notice, giving dimensionality to a potentially cardboard character. In Act II, Amy Bell appears as his wife Betty Chumley, neatly transformed from Act I's Aunt Ethel.
The story of an odd man devoted to something no one else understands- in this case, title character Harvey- spans centuries of literature, theatre and film. Don Quixote, Walter E. Mitty, Captain Ahab, Atticus Finch, Willy Wonka and Hercule Poirot are all compelling, but it is rare to find an oddball as humble and endearing as Elwood P. Dowd. His oddity is so sweet that by the end of the show, we audience members are nearly ready to find pookas of our own.
Confession: I have always loved the show HARVEY, including the movie version. This production gave me warm fuzzies, just the way I hoped it would. Cozy little drawing-room comedies may not be to everyone's taste, but I like them, and this one is very nicely done.
HARVEY runs at Vagabonds Theater through February 9th, showtimes Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Vagabonds is located at 806 South Broadway Street in Fells Point. Tickets are available online at www.vagabondplayers.org.
Photo Credit: Ken Stanek