In 1944, when Mary Chase’s whimsical “Harvey” opened on Broadway, it was welcomed as a distraction from wartime woes. Given current unstable economic and political conditions, the new Broadway-bound Laguna Playhouse production may again benefit from a mass need for escapism. Although it’s difficult in retrospect to see how this feather-light fantasy snatched the Pulitzer prize away from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the story has an appealing upbeat message, while this production boasts a powerhouse portrayal by Joyce Van Patten that turns lackluster lines into witticisms and adds a wallop to scenes that dawdle and dwell on the obvious.
She plays Veta, perplexed sister of Elwood P. Dowd (Charles Durning), a gentle alcoholic whose best friend, Harvey, is an invisible six-foot rabbit. Unlike Josephine Hull, who originally presented Veta as a dithering eccentric, Van Patten’s interpretation has a tart, tough and modern edge. She sets the plot in motion with a desire to commit Elwood to a sanitarium when his obsession with Harvey threatens to destroy the marital chances of her single daughter, Myrtle Mae (Jill Van Velzer).
Durning’s Elwood is a bumblingly benign, good-natured soul, but Myrtle Mae bitterly comments, “People get run over by trucks every day … why can’t something like that happen to Uncle Elwood?” Van Velzer, in bun, glasses and sensible shoes, has an amusingly nervous, vulnerable personality, and we share her frustration.
The first act, when Veta’s consultation with psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson (Stephen O’Mahoney) causes him to mistakenly brand her insane, is frequently tedious and expository, telegraphing story twists and plot setups. It takes time for cast members to settle comfortably into their roles. Once Veta decides to sue the hospital, the humor heats up. Sanderson’s sexually antagonistic relationship with nurse Ruth (Erica Shaffer) grows more involving, and Wilson (a forceful James Van Patten), the man responsible for capturing and incarcerating Veta, develops an unexpectedly engaging chemistry with manless Myrtle.
Durning’s Elwood announces, “I wrestled with reality for 40 years and finally won over it,” yet the actor incorporates enough wisdom and depth to make the character plausible. Charles Nelson Reilly’s insightful direction is particularly on target when Elwood converses with Harvey about Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” dances with the rabbit or holds him close. By not exaggerating these interludes, Reilly avoids the trap of turning Elwood into a cliched lovable lunatic.
James Noone’s stylish, conservative set provides further balance by contrasting with the nonstop zaniness. Affecting sequences that show Elwood expressing affection for Harvey are enhanced by Ken Billington’s lighting, which darkens as Elwood speaks and transports us to a different time and place.
Production’s length and three-act structure often induce a feeling of restlessness. Nor is there enough jeopardy and dramatic impact, in plot or playing, when Elwood is threatened with an injection that would subtract Harvey from his life and restore so-called sanity. But inspired scenes, such as Joyce Van Patten entering a room and exclaiming with relief, “Good — nothing but people,” and Dick Van Patten’s hilarious horror when he begins to see Harvey himself, justify waiting out the static stretches.