“For 40 years I wrestled with reality and finally beat out over it.” — Elwood P. Dowd
Elwood P. Dowd’s best friend is a 6-foot-plus invisible rabbit named Harvey.
He showed up seven years ago, soon after Elwood’s mother died in Elwood’s arms. Harvey goes everywhere with Elwood, even to play pinochle down at the firehouse.
Elwood talks with his giant furry friend, holds doors open for him and reads Jane Austen novels to him.
Elwoodis a friendly, kind man, but his sister and niece try to have him committed to a sanitarium — despite the fact that his sister admits to having seen Harvey herself.
Theatergoers and movie fans alike will recognize this as the plot of “Harvey,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase that was turned into a classic movie after its successful Broadway run.
“It’s a charming show, says actor Brendan Powers, who plays Elwood. “It’s intriguing. “It’s very sweet, and yet there are so many ways you can look at it. I think a lot of it (deals) with people who are ‘eccentric’ but are really kind of like the little golden jewels of society, in the very best way.
“(People think about) people who aren’t ‘normal’ and a little weird — how do we ‘fix’ them? But it’s sort of a cheer for the oddball, because at the end of the play there’s a remedy.
“But why do we want to erase the uniqueness of people?”
The play, Mr. Powers suggests, could be a commentary on artists. But artists — “the people who live outside the box,” he says — “are the ones who bring flavor and color to what otherwise would be status-quo mediocrity. We want these people in society. They’re not hurting anyone.”
On the surface, “Harvey” is a comical play about a grown man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit.
“But there are a lot of different thoughts about it,” Mr. Powers says. “I’m not trying to change it into a Chekhovian drama, but I think it’s about loneliness, about what people do when they’re lonely. They create their own happiness.”
Others have suggested this is a play about sexuality, that “Harvey” is about a guy who is gay, who is different from the rest of society. People just aren’t sure how to react to him.
Mr. Powers has never had an imaginary friend, but he does admit to talking to himself.
“Many actors talk to themselves all the time,” he says. “You’re going over lines. When you’re in public, everyone just thinks you’re on the phone.”
And as a child, he adds, “I had tons of teddy bears, and they all had vibrant personalities and names and total histories of who they were and where they came from. They were living beings, as far as I was concerned. I think in that regard, I had an imaginary friend that I could see.”
Ms. Chase, the playwright, was a Denver, Colo., journalist who lived across the street from a widow whose son was declared missing in World War II. When she saw how sad the woman was, she began wondering if she could ever do anything to make her laugh again.
She kept thinking of various ideas for plays and rejecting them.
Then, one morning at five o’clock, she woke up and saw a psychiatrist walking across her bedroom, followed by an enormous white rabbit. And she knew she had the germ of her next play.
“Harvey” opened on Broadway in 1944 and ran for almost 4½ years. It was directed by Antoinette Perry, the woman for whom theater’s prestigious Tony Awards are named.
In 1950, it was released as a movie, starring Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull. Mr. Stewart, who had been an understudy for the role of Elwood on Broadway, played him for celluloid and then again onstage (opposite Helen Hayes) on Broadway in 1970.
Mr. Powers hasn’t seen the movie. He doesn’t want to be influenced by Mr. Stewart’s performance, instead creating one that’s totally his own.
He wonders whether 2019 audiences will interpret the play in ways that Ms. Chase in 1944 perhaps didn’t intend, and he wishes there were audience talkbacks.
“It’s the kind of play where people can come away with all kinds of things, like ‘(Waiting for) Godot’”, he says. “The fact that ‘Harvey’ won the Pulitzer is interesting to me. It must have hit some kind of chord to win the Pulitzer. There’s something more going on there than just a comedy.”
But he doesn’t want people to think the show is a serious drama.
“It’s really fun and buoyant and silly and quirky,” he says. “Audiences will laugh and be touched. It’s this wacky little comedy.
“I don’t think Elwood is on a mission to be different. He just is.
“When the picture on the wall’s a little crooked, let it be crooked. Every picture on the wall doesn’t have to be aligned.” ¦
In the KNOW
Who: Theatre Conspiracy
When: Aug. 15-25
Where: The Alliance for the Arts, Fort Myers
Info: 239-939-2787 or www.artinlee.org
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