A Kinder, Gentler Harvey Is on Display at A.D. Players

Patty Tuel Bailey and David Matranga in Harvey.
Patty Tuel Bailey and David Matranga in Harvey. Photo by Jeff McMorrough/Courtesy of A. D. Players

Patty Tuel Bailey and David Matranga in Harvey.
Photo by Jeff McMorrough/Courtesy of A. D. Players

It's a bit of a jolt to drive down Westheimer and spy A.D. Players' ultra-bright LED marquee. There, right in front of you, is the name HARVEY! It takes only a nanosecond to realize that the classic storm isn't being forecast or commemorated, but that the sign advertises Mary Chase's classic Pulitzer Prize-winner Harvey (1944). You know, the comedy with the imaginary rabbit. Even without the unfortunate associations to Houston's recent natural disaster, A.D. Players can't quite float this boat.

Stuffed with whimsy, Chase's comedy arrived during the waning but still dire days of WW II. It boosted morale, no doubt about it, was an immediate smash, and played for more than four years. Jimmy Stewart, back from distinguished service in the Air Force, joined the Broadway cast in 1947 for a limited summer run and again during the next summer. His stage portrayal earned him the screen role when the play was filmed in 1950, giving Stewart an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Josephine Hull, who played sister Veta onstage, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The play creaks at times and is a trifle musty, but it has an uplifting message of being true to yourself, even if you're an alcoholic, fun-loving, terribly decent person. It seems Elwood P. Dowd does nothing in his life but bar-hop. He hangs out with numerous old friends and incessantly makes new ones. He's the embodiment of the human spirit. His best friend in the world is the “pooka” Harvey, a six-foot-tall white rabbit who can foretell the future, stop time and perform mischievous pranks. Elwood and Harvey are inseparable, which causes grief for sister Veta and niece Myrtle Mae, whose budding love life is forever stalled by absentee boyfriends who think her uncle is crazy. When Veta attempts to commit Elwood to a psychiatric home, she is the one the doctors think is insane.

The whole idea is a bit twee and underwritten, and isn't helped at all by the rudderless direction from Julia Traber, who has no idea how to stage such magical realism. There's not much charm in evidence. Nor much of a fleet touch. Scenes that require deft handling get trounced by broad playing (young Myrtle would never flop on the divan), while the broad physical comedy gets tamped down or is poorly executed. The expert actors do the best they can without a stylistic guidebook, so it's up to Kevin Michael Dean, as Elwood, and Patty Tuel Bailey, as frustrated sister Veta, to carry the play. They are stevedores. Even ace scenic designer Ryan McGettigan gets stumped with his lumbering Victorian house that is so out of period it looks repurposed. The set change to the sanatorium, which happens behind a scrim as the built pieces are turned around, takes forever. The lightness of being has no meaning here.

In his old-fashioned cardigan, argyle socks and red bow tie, Dean plays Elwood as saintly fool, an eternal innocent, of which Chase would heartily approve since her fantasy has traces of medieval mystery play. He alone brings a light touch to the proceedings, blithely unaware of the crises surrounding the household. When concerns get too close for comfort, he embraces the challenge with guileless aplomb. He's the sanest of them all. Bailey, who has seen Harvey but has never revealed the news, gives Veta a down-home quality that warmly augments the comedy. When she gets a call from the society editor of the newspaper, she stops and adjusts her girdle before answering the phone. Comic touches like this are few and far between.

Wishing for an escape from his humdrum life, Dr. Chumley (Craig Griffin) sees Harvey as a way out. If he cures Elwood of his delusions, then Harvey will be his. Oh, if he could stop time, where would he go? To a maple grove for two weeks in Akron, Ohio, where a young maid would listen to pleas from his heart that he's never told anyone. This profound and quiet moment slaps us back to reality. Ah, the dreams we dream when nobody's listening. It's a beatific moment that encapsulates everything Harvey and Harvey represent. If only this production would be so blessed.

To help the victims of that other Harvey, A.D. Players will donate 20 percent of the play's proceeds to disaster relief. All first responders and anyone who was flooded can attend for free. Reason enough to go.

Harvey continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays and September 30. Through October 1. Jeannette and L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit $15 to $70.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover