Harvey is a play that mystifies and amuses at the same time. When I left the Chemainus Theatre, I found myself asking: What was that all about?
Of course, you can accept Harvey – Elwood P. Dowd’s six foot ‘imaginary’ rabbit – and the trouble he causes as farce, and leave the theatre with a chuckle and head-shake as you step back into your real world.
Or you can look at it as a commentary on social convention, and the risks we run when we reveal too much about ourselves, as Elwood (Mark Dumez) perpetually does, much to the embarrassment, delight and consternation of those around him.
Elwood’s flaw, looked at from the eyes of sister Veta Louise Simmons (Erin Ormond), is his embarrassing honesty and forthrightness. If he meets someone he likes – particularly someone of the opposite sex – he says so. What most of us would consider flattery is, in Elwood’s case, sincere flirtation with a decidedly humanist twist.
If he’s going to the bar for a drink – something he does frequently – he says so straight up, without any distracting social allusion.
But the biggest sin of all is Elwood’s having a giant white rabbit as his best friend and confidant, and his insistence on introducing Harvey to everyone he meets. Elwood’s condition drives the other characters in the play to distraction.
His sister Veta Louise Simmons tries to hide the secret of her family’s mental instability through various foiled avoidance strategies; his niece, Myrtle Mae (Ella Simon), sees Elwood’s fantasy as a weakness she can exploit to get her hands on the family fortune; the famed psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (Bernard Cuffling) sees Elwood as an interesting case to be cured, further elevating his own inflated stature.
What’s really telling though, are our own reactions to Elwood as an audience. I found myself annoyed at his easygoing innocence. I don’t think I could put up with a guy like Elwood for very long.
The question is, why? Could it be that, 70 years after the Pulitzer Prize winning play was written by Mary Chase, and despite the various and sundry liberating cultural revolutions we’ve gone through since, we still live in our portable closets with our rattling skeletons, and he reminds us of that persistent fact?
Truth is, I could never be an Elwood, but I’m not sure if my annoyance is a muted form of jealousy, or genuine recoil at a character who goes too far breaking down legitimate and necessary social conventions.
As a journalist, especially, that kowtowing to social norms has to raise questions for me, and that’s what perpetuates the relevance of Harvey.
The set for this performance is marvelous, costumes impeccable, as you would expect from the Chemainus Theatre Festival. The performance, under the direction of Julie McIsaac, is convincing and enjoyable. I particularly liked Ella Simon as Myrtle Mae Simmons, Bernard Cuffling as Dr. Chumley, and Erin Ormond as Veta Louise Simmons.
Mark Dumez portrays the unflappable Elwood well, but I have to think it’s not an easy role – rather, it’s one of those characters that requires an actor to subdue any crescendoes of flamboyance or surprise with all the assiduity of a Zen monk in a New York subway at rush hour.