The word “quaint” describes the stage at the local Center for the Arts, and that is certainly the image that set designer Shane Lowry and director Bill Stewart want to project.
While the center of the main stage opens occasionally to a smaller stage set up high, the initial sequence takes place in the old Dowd family mansion. The cozy façade, dressed as a personal home library, holds wingback chairs and a bookshelf stocked with Jane Austen novels among other things. The fireplace is complete with the portrait of a stern matriarchal figure peering out from above the mantle, the old mother Dowd, who bequeathed her property and assets to her one and only son: a Mr. Elwood P. Dowd, one of the sweetest men you would ever have the pleasure to meet.
Of course, he’d eventually have to introduce you to his best friend, Harvey, at which time you may never wish to speak to him again.
Mary Chase’s 1944 play, “Harvey,” a purposeful comedy written toward the end of WWII, seems to be more of an ode to the meaning of life than it is a comment on the mental health of the kooky cast. By the final act, it seems as if they all have begun to lose it just a bit, everyone, that is, except for the one man who claims to see an anthropomorphic white rabbit.
The delightfully charming John Green lives and breathe his role as Mr. Dowd, a cheerful yet naïve gentlemen, who is a childlike man subconsciously resisting the idea of being a “normal person.” Harvey, his best friend and constant companion, is a “pooka” standing at a debatable six-foot, three-and-one-half-inches tall.
Unfortunately for Elwood, he is the only one who can see the tall rabbit.
Dowd’s social-climbing sister, Veta Louis Simmons, and his sniveling niece, Myrtle Mae, decide that they can no longer bear dealing with his eccentricity. They try to have him committed to the local sanitarium in order to spare them from further embarrassment. As Veta, Cyndie Verbeten is fitful and snobbish, but not entirely unsympathetic, and her and Green’s believable performances are ostensibly the best of the night.
The sanitarium, officially referred to as “Chumley’s Rest,” more closely resembles the offensive, yet accurate, term “madhouse.”
Handsome but egotistical, Dr. Lyman Sanderson and the sassy Nurse Ruth Kelly are flirtatious practitioners who inadvertently commit Veta instead of Elwood after she admits to having seen Harvey in the past, to her own abject horror. Sidney Hicks is vivacious and bright in the role of Kelly, but much of the later scenes revolve around a limp Dr. William Chumley, who is the only psychiatrist there who can see that Elwood is the ‘crazy’ one.
In a pinnacle moment, Chumley, portrayed by Christopher Hawkins, refers to the sanatorium’s ability to track down so-called runaway patients. “We get them. We always get them,” he says. But without the necessary conviction, this is doubtful.
The cast’s natural comedic pacing is refreshing, and very few scenes extend longer than they should. But perhaps more important than “Harvey’s” laughs was its startling depth. In the end, Harvey is not merely a hallucination or apparition, but he is a symbol of kindness and a representation of escape from worldly troubles and anxieties.
“You will not see the rabbit, but you will see your responsibilities and your duties,” claims Dr. Sanderson while trying to convince Elwood that an injection to “cure” him would be in his best interests. However, the timely arrival of a smart-mouthed cabby has Veta changing her mind on a cure that would turn her brother into an angry, hard-hearted, “normal human being.”
Ultimately, Elwood convinces everyone that it is better to be happy and kind than it is to be normal. And maybe just the best of us are lucky enough to have a rabbit for a friend.
“Harvey” runs through Sept. 20. at Murfreesboro Center for the Arts. For more information, go to boroarts.org or call 615-904-2787.
This article was originally here on Sidelines.com.