BWW Reviews: The Rep's Sublime HARVEY Celebrates Holiday Spirit

Mysterious circumstances and the inexplicable spirit of a six feet tall white rabbit revisit the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's exquisite 70th anniversary production of Harvey. Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of Ellwood P. Dowd, a man who imagines the rabbit named Harvery is his best friend, unfolds on an elegant double turntable stage designed by Dan Conroy, a sight to delight any audience. The eloquent production humorously explores on a complex level what makes life worth living. Perhaps Ellwood's own words succinctly crystallize that premise: "You must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart, and than I chose pleasant."

Ellwood's affectionate and endearing personality appear at The Rep through the acting gifts of Jonathan Gillard Daly, whose affable demeanor presents the perfect balance between "pleasant" and slightly "mentally unbalanced" in his performance. Daly captures this sincere, if frequently too interested in sharing a drink with anyone, character so the audience can also imagine Harvey, or understand his family's frustrations.

Milwaukee audiences certainly wish they could believe in that spirit, too, and easily sympathize with Ellwood's determined insistence that Harvey exists. They also understand how his sister Veta, the vibrant Deborah Staples, struggles to commit Ellwood to a sanatarium called Chumley's Rest because she's tired of living in Harvey's "shadow." Her daughter, Myrtle May, played by Rep debuting actor Kristine Loy, becomes more incensed when her uncle's behavior prevents her from any social life because Myrtle's friends avoid associating with her while Ellwood might be considered crazy.

To cap this selection, a cadre of Milwaukee Rep actors return to the Quadracci Powerhouse stage for this poignant anniversary production--Laurie Birmingham, Laura Gordon, Richard Halverson, James Pickering and a recent addition and retuning actor Kelley Faulkner bring Chase's story to life. This tour de force of acting credentials and experience makes every stage moment a memory in the timeless comedy. As the psychiatrist in charge at the sanatarium, Pickering's Dr. William R. Chumley incites a delectable camaraderie with Halverson's Judge Omar Gaffney when they argue over Veta's mistaken admittance to the sanatarium and whether Harvey might be conjured or real.

Is Harvey the invisible rabbit conjured or real? Chase references the existence of the Pooka, a fairy spirit appearing in animal form derived from Irish/Celtic folklore to evoke the audience's sense of magic and wonder in life's inexplicable circumstances. Can everything be called chance or just misunderstood, or are these universal forces also working in the world? Spirits reminiscent of Dickens's Christmas ghosts and Shakespeare's forest nymphs or magician's creatures, which also invite mischievous havoc on happiness for the human condition. In Chase's script sensitively paced by Director KJ Sanchez, Harvey foretells the future to his friend Ellwood and is often right. Who really conceives what metaphysical and telepathic phenomena exist?

How marvelous during the holiday season to reexamine, restore that wonder in faith, perhaps what is indiscernible to the eye. To rethink what might be considered normal or mere madness? To question if life might be lived in the spirit of smart or pleasant, or in tandem using both the head and heart. Veta and her daughter need to make that choice regarding Ellwood in the presence of what living with family and all their personality quirks means, and how their love affects those decisions. The Rep's enduring production of Harvey captures one example of the holiday spirit when all men become worthy of consideration and respect, whether viewed as pleasant or smart, crazy or sane.

In the heartwarming story of Harvey rational explanations fail to explain the happenstances, even the miraculous, that frequently occur right before one's eyes on any given day. The Rep's sublime Harvey illuminates heartfelt laughter to banish sorrow for an evening while visitors marvel at the grand Christmas tree trimmed with lights standing in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater complex each December. Under that glorious tree before experiencing exceptional theater, all people freely appreciate the kindness of friends and the love of family. Even when that family might include something similar to an invisible six feet tall white rabbit named Harvey, these cherished spirits close another year's end with joy.

Milwaukee Rep presents Harvey in the Quadracci Powerhouse theater at the Patty and Jay Baker Theater complex through December 21. For further information or tickets, please call 414.224.9490 or

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan

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