For all that Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Harvey ran for almost half a decade, captured the fancy of the public and gave James Stewart what is, arguably, his most career-defining and signature role (he was one of those rare examples of a Broadway replacement who got to immortalize his performance on film), it’s nowhere close to foolproof. The fanciful tale of Elwood P. Dowd, who may or may not consort with a Pooka (a gently mischievous spirit who has taken the form of a man-sized rabbit—the eponymous Harvey—and who is visible/audible to only a select few) and how that relationship affects family, friends and the staff at the local private loony bin is one of such delicate quaintness that almost any misstep would be enough to tank it. (And I’ve seen it happen.) Not only that, but it seems to be a play that may only be audience-friendly at certain times, because it’s such a throwback. The days of the solitary hero who’s the only one to know that the horse can talk, that the girl is a genie, that his uncle is a Martian, that his two dead best friends and their dog are ghosts are gone. As is the day of the inverse: the hero who is the only one to see what anyone would see if they were only open to it: the conquest-minded aliens disguised as normal Earth citizens, the suburban housewives who are just a little too perfect to be real…or in this case, a Pooka. No, these days our vampires and their slayers are out in the open; or the secret is that you’re the vampire (sharing a house with a ghost and werewolf), or the cop thrown thirty years into the past, or the husband who wakes up to a loving wife and kids in a beautiful house, none of which are his.
What is it about Harvey that’s working so well now?
Well, there are a few obvious things.
Without being so slavish that he can’t leave his own mark, director Scott Ellis has honored the 1930s-50s playing style typical of light-comedy/domestic fantasy that produced such things as Harvey and Topper. He hasn’t tried to make it hipper or sleeker—and though he may well have done things to tighten pace, he’s been careful not to make it appear less leisurely. An excellent design team has recreated the look and ambience of the period; and an excellent cast—headed by Jim Parsons as the guilelessly well-mannered Elwood, Jessica Hecht as his increasingly flustered older sister and Charles Kimbrough as the stuffy lead psychiatrist—deliver their version of Old School comedy of manners, with a smattering of screwball comedy eccentricity.
But I think perhaps there’s something else.
Right now, the United States is making noises as if its in its most polarized state since the Civil War. And here comes Harvey—a story about faith in mankind. About one nice man’s belief that if you’re decent to people and stand up for the right things, why, everything will work out just fine. Tell that tale to a liberal and of course it’s a fable about the power of reason and tolerance. Tell that to a conservative, it validates holding firm to traditional values.
The young psychiatrist Sanderson says, “You know we all must face reality, Dowd, sooner or later.“ Elwood replies: “I wrestled with reality for thirty-five years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” We never know what that backstory is, Mary Chase gives us only the faintest sliver of a clue early on. All we know, or think we know, is that at some time, somewhere, somehow, Elwood was angry. And now he’s not. And that’s just enough for Elwood to speak for any or all of us on the nature of reality vs. truth.
in a manner of which Elwood—and Harvey—would approve, we can
interpret that any way we damn please and still go home happy. I think maybe
that’s why Harvey got that year’s
Pulitzer Prize and not A Streetcar Named Desire. As crazy as that seems in retrospect, but maybe not so much. Would you rather identify with Blanche DuBois, who
lands in the nuthouse…or Elwood P. Dowd, who’s just passing through…?
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