BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Goes Hare Hunting with HARVEY
Mary Chase's "Elwood P. Dowd" and I have something in common: During the month of April, we've both had rabbit sightings. In my case, it was a stunning, cellophane-wrapped three-foot chocolate bunny, sitting atop the counter at Memphis historic Dinstuhl's Candies -- seventy-five pounds and solid. Had I the requisite $1000 (marked down from $1800), I, too, could have had a companion. Perhaps Elwood's invisible friend HARVEY was more accessible and, ultimately, enjoyable; at least it was to the appreciative audience at Friday evening's Theatre Memphis performance.
I really don't know much about Mary Chase. Her name today certainly does not demand the attention of a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, much less a Neil Simon. I do know that the play itself, with its charmingly eccentric "Elwood," was a very significant work when "Harvey" first hopped across the New York stages in 1944; surprising, too, is that Chase's whimsical, good-natured little souffle of a play actually won the Pulitzer Prize. However, that set me to thinking: Perhaps it's not so surprising after all. This play was written during the Second World War; if one half of the world was being shelled, the other half was probably feeling a bit shell-shocked. After all, a chest-thumping Mussolini and goose-stepping Hitler were rather grim figures dominating the news. The theatre world was probably ready for a kinder, gentler "escape," and the popularity of HARVEY wasn't so far removed from the recent revivals of ANNIE on various stages throughout the country. More than one critic has pointed out the necessity of such works to an innocence-starved theatre-going public, and let's face the fact: The 2000's have hardly been an "Ozzie and Harriet" experience. When HARVEY was written, insanity seemed to be running rampant across the headlines. That aside, is a play like HARVEY still welcome? I believe it is.
Most people are familiar with HARVEY because of the 1950 film version, which starred an Oscar -nominated James Stewart as "Elwood" and an Oscar-winning Josephine Hull as his sister "Veta Louise" (this cherubic little old lady had charmed Broadway and film auciences just a few years before as tip-toeing "Aunt Abby" in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE). Anyone who has seen this film has strong recollections of those two performances. Director John Rone, who knows his way around material like this, has an interesting array of actors. Youthful Zach Pless grays nicely as the thirty-three year-old "elwood"; lanky, like Stewart, he is similarly charming and good -natured. "Elwood," after all, is a kind of laid-back descendant of DON QUIXOTE and a "first cousin" to Edmund Gwenn's "Kris Kringle" in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET. You can't help liking him and what he stands for, though you know very well that the world is full of hurtful windmills and petty personalities who are ready to descend at the first opportunity; and Pless is true to type. As the exasperated sister "Veta Louise," who wants him "committed" as soon as possible, that bright penny of a performer Ann G. Sharp is much easier on the eyes that Miss Hull and the "Aunt Bee"-types that usually play her. Miss Sharp has always been the kind of performer who brings her own special light to any role she plays. Watch her expressions and listen to the notes she hits in her line readings (it probably helps that she is also an accomplished singer); she is always good in comedy, and plays well with Mr. Pless.
The entire cast , in fact, is expert -- Jillian Barron as the man-starved "Myrtle Mae," Christopher Tracy as the "strong arm" of "Chumley's Rest," Lena Wallace and Brian Everson as the lovelorn "Nurse Kelly" and the smug "Dr. Sanderson," and, perhaps best of all, Jason M. Spitzer as the pompous "Dr. Chumley" (his about-face in the last act is especially satisfying). The efficent and impressive sets are by Jack Yates, with some rather nice piano pieces delighting at opportune moments. Through May 11. (Photo courtesy of Randall Hartzog)