REVIEW: "HARVEY"—Vanguard University Theatre Arts @ The Lyceum Theater
Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Elwood P. Dowd: "Miss Kelly, perhaps you'd like this flower. I seem to have misplaced my buttonhole."
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Harvey?” That’s the silly show about that guy, Elwood P. Dowd, with the big invisible rabbit friend, whose sister Veta tries to get him committed to a sanatorium, right?
Yes. “Harvey” is part of the silly genre of American comedy like “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” two other old-school “sillies” that still draw laughs. “Harvey” has brought fun to audiences for almost 80 years now, in one form or fashion, and is the product of the creative genius of an Irish American playwright named Mary Coyle Chase, a story that has become as intimate in American lore as Mary's little lamb.
“The Pooka” was "Harvey’s" original title. Pooka comes from the old Irish púca, meaning “goblin” – a friendly spirit in animal form who loves to talk and can only be seen by those who believe in him. But after almost two years and 50 re-writes, some of which Mary read to her cleaning lady, “Harvey” made it to Broadway. Mary was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Denver, an award from the Colorado Authors League and, of course, the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for drama, that year beating out “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams.
Mary wrote “Harvey” to cheer people up during the war, and it certainly did just that: it was a smash hit, and she was reputedly paid one million dollars for the rights to the 1950 film version (a fortune back in those days) starring James Stewart as the agreeable Elwood P. Dowd who, to the consternation of his dithery society sister, Veta, and grasping niece, Myrtle Mae, has no desire to be a “normal human being.” Both Stewart and co-star Josephine Hull were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes. Hull won both.
Over the years, the play has been one of the most frequently produced in the history of American theater, published in nearly every language and country, and is still ranked as having been the 39th longest running show of all time. James Stewart himself, after subbing for the original Broadway star Frank Fay during Fay’s vacation, appeared on Broadway in a revival in the 1970s, took the show to London, then did it on television. It was revived yet again on Broadway in 2012 with Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, with every bit the draw as the original production.
Now, having waited for over two decades, Vanguard University obtained the rights to this winsome 1944 chestnut, and ran it for two complete weekends at Lyceum Theater (closing this past Sunday April 10th to laurels and ovation). In a whirlwind run that seemed way too short, the show was a valiant success from its initial curtain, delighting consistently packed crowds in the theater.
Vividly directed by Susan K. Berkompas (“Othello,” “The Boys Next Door”), and led with charisma and charm by a supremely winning Elijah Munck as the gentle protagonist, the show's free-flowing script possessed the vigor of a fresh theatrical perspective, raising the proposition that what defines "crazy" for one person may be the perfect definition of happiness for another.
“Harvey,” in fact, turned out to be a very amiable couple of hours, and as soothing as a nice cup of tea. While many of the play’s characters are eccentric and odd, the rabbit pulled out of the hat was the wistfully, wonderfully warm presentation of all the characters, including a beguiling Elijah Munck as Elwood. His deft, light-fingered performance made the saintliness go down easy as he tossed little morsels of homespun wisdom against the footlights with such guileless simplicity. "In this world…you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
With his honeyed drawl, elfin features and sweet, sidelong grin, Mr. Munck's Elwood was a man pickled in the literal-mindedness of a young boy, who seems to spend more time in the bars than a longshoreman without actually imbibing a single drop of the bitters.
With just as much stage time, Jaden Massaro delivers a daffy, dotty turn as Elwood’s sister, Veta. Fearing for her unlovely daughter’s social standing, and presently at her wit’s end trying to mask his eccentricities from the disapproving world, sister Veta attempts to have Elwood committed to the local looneybin for his own good.
But when the scatter-brained Veta hisses to Dr. Sanderson (Micah Munck), who is in charge of admissions, that she herself has even occasionally caught a glimpse of Harvey, the asylum turns out to be a mad house. As misunderstandings pile up, it becomes apparent that the state of sanity may not be quite the prize it appears. Ms. Massaro plays her part with such hilarious confusion and risible concern that she brings quite as much to the play as does Mr. Munck—or even his furry pal.
Chloe Mann is also perfect as Elwood's timorous niece, Myrtle Mae, exuding both ambition for social standing and perky man-hungriness. Equally delightful is Luke Desmond as the stuffy Dr. Chumley, respected chief psychiatrist, who is panicked to discover that his certainties may now stand for nothing. When the good doctor returns from a boozy afternoon in the company of Elwood and Harvey, his mind is so addled, he staggers into his office like a zombie and demands that Wilson, his burly, rough-mannered attendant who keeps the patients in line (an amusingly brutish Gregory Dodd), not leave him alone for an instant. Mr. Dodd is spot-on as the slightly thuggish orderly—loyal to his employer, indelicate with the patients, and as blunt as a steam iron.
Dr. Chumley's open-hearted if somewhat gullible wife Betty (Naomi Hogan), along with Elwood’s doting Aunt Ethel (Anabella Sanford) make the most of their lighter cameo scenes, propelling the story with engaging characters. Nick Goss expertly fills the role of Dowd family retainer, Judge Omar Gaffney (mirthfully amusing with a thrown-out back and gruff demeanor), called in by Veta to lawfully authorize Elwood’s confinement. And Nurse Ruth Kelly (Madison Melendes), providing both loveliness and grit, has a fair amount of bickering bouts with sparring partner Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Micah Munck) that thinly masks their mutual attraction for each other.
Elijah Munck’s Elwood P. Dowd may, in fact, be the most well-adjusted person of the bunch, and Director Berkompas directs the production with appropriate shades of comedy and seriousness. Paul Eggington has created an effective lazy susan turntable set design that perfectly allows quick changes in locations from the Dowd home to the asylum; and Lia Hansen’s costume designs are a nice mixture of accurate period clothing.
Things do get sorted out in the end, as this is a play supremely designed to leave the audience feeling good, with a take-home lesson in tolerance of those who march to their own drummer—or drink with their own rabbit. However, one does wonder: would there be a difference between Elwood's embrace of Harvey if that embrace is born of faith rather than sheer delusion? Mary Chase may not have intended audiences to look that deeply at the nature of her creation, but it is still possible to do so. Besides, it was her idea to call Harvey a "pooka" first, a "rabbit" second. In any event, the show was delightful, funny, warm, and life affirming—which certainly makes for a happily spent time at the theater, and that's even if we never dive beneath the sunny surface of Chase's concoction.
WITH: ELIJAH MUNCK, LUKE DESMOND, MICAH MUNCK, GREGORY DODD, NICK GOSS, JADEN MASSARO, MADISON MELENDES, CHLOE MANN, ANABELLA SANFORD, NAOMI HOGAN, JESSICA ALMADA; Understudy for the role of RUTH KELLY: MADISON COMBE.
HARVEY, Written by MARY CHASE; Performing April 1st through April 10th on the campus of VANGUARD UNIVERSITY, in the LYCEUM THEATER; Directed by SUSAN K. BERKOMPAS; Producing Artistic Director/Department Chair SUSAN K. BERKOMPAS; Scenic Designer/Tech Director/Audio by PAUL EGGINGTON; Lighting Design by GARRETT SPADY; Costumes and Makeup Designer is LIA HANSEN; Property Masters are REZIA LANDERS & JAIDA ALBANITO; Stage Manager is NATALIE SALAS; Assistant Stage Managers are LOGAN CRANFORD & BRENNER FARR.
For information on upcoming shows this season, please visit: www.vanguard.edu/theatre
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report