Zach Theatre's revival provides plenty of laughs, but is missing the poignant quality that makes the play so enduring
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., June 7, 2013
HarveyZach's Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through June 16
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.
Harvey is as likable as 20th century plays get. The story of a middle-aged man's ongoing friendship with a six-foot-tall rabbit that only he can see – a "pooka," in Irish folklore – won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945, and the 1950 film adaptation with James Stewart remains a touchstone of American cinema. It's been revived onstage countless times in a number of languages. Something about the play's theme – that a person can be either smart or pleasant, and pleasant is the one that leads to greater happiness – seems to resonate effectively across times and cultures.
Zach Theatre's production, directed by Dave Steakley, stars Martin Burke as Elwood P. Dowd, the only person who sees Harvey. Dowd, a kind-hearted man who lives in a stately mansion (beautifully designed by Michelle Ney) with his sister Veta Louise (Lauren Lane) and niece Myrtle Mae (Erin Barlow), is essentially ruining their lives: He insists on introducing everyone they meet to his invisible friend, alienating his family's aspiring socialites from the society members they'd like to impress. Finally fed up, Veta Louise decides to have Elwood committed, taking him to Chumley's Rest (another gorgeous set design from Ney). Comic mix-ups ensue, and questions are raised about who in the family is really crazy. Elwood grins his way into a friendship with the sanitarium's Nurse Kelly (Liz Beckham) and Dr. Sanderson (Jacob Trussell) while the facility's namesake, Dr. Chumley (Michael Stuart), has to sort out the mess.
All of this plays well for laughs, but it also feels like things are missing from Zach's production. Burke seems to have made the decision that his Elwood is a crazy person, obviously hallucinating the pooka, rather than a man who found a peace that only he can see. He plays Elwood with an intensity that makes the character hard to sympathize with – when he insists that Nurse Kelly and Dr. Sanderson join him for a drink, for example, it's easier to believe that they feel pressured rather than charmed. Moreover, shrieking from the supporting cast boils much of the subtlety and sadness out of the script. Barlow and Victor Steele, as orderly Duane Wilson, play their parts so shouty that it's difficult to view the goings-on as happening to real people.
All of which makes Harvey tougher to watch than it should be. There's still plenty to laugh at, but when it's time for Elwood and his family to make their final choice – would they rather he be smart or pleasant? – we don't buy that smart was ever really an option. Harvey is a lot less poignant when we're laughing at the crazy man with the imaginary friend instead of wishing we had one of our own.