For a 50-year-old rabbit who’s invisible, Harvey still looks pretty good. And his good pal Elwood P. Dowd remains one of the most endearing characters in American theater. Both are beautifully served in this Seattle Repertory Theater revival of Mary Chase’s classic, kicking off the season for La Jolla Playhouse.
Since its 1944 opening, it has become familiar because of thousands of stagings as well as the James Stewart film, yet it retains the power to charm when rendered with care and quality.
Director Douglas Hughes has done exactly that, resisting most temptations toward revisionism or gimmickry. “Harvey” is a fairy tale for adults, with just enough theme to give it substance, and Hughes pays respect.
Key to success, of course, is a credible Dowd, and it’s a deceptively difficult role. The man is single, near 50, unemployed and generally regarded as a lush. Worse, he spends most of his time — or so he tells people — in the company of a six-foot rabbit, or pooka, who frequently informs his pal about the future.
Anyone playing Elwood has to tread a fine line. He has to inspire sympathy but not pity, be friendly without seeming obsequious, and guileless yet perceptive.
Jeff Weiss handles the challenge admirably, winning everyone — in play and audience — with a pleasant face and expansive smile.
Sister Veta’s attempt to put Elwood in a mental hospital propels the plot and brings in the medical staffers who provide counterpoint to the upper-crusty friends of Elwood’s social-climbing sister and niece.
The crew includes the officious doctor who decides Veta is the nutty one, his nurse-sweetheart, the head doctor (who’s also a head case) and the simian-like attendant.
They, like the others around Elwood, spend most of their time on sanity’s edges, contrasting with his placidity and giving the play its proper just-who-is-crazy-anyway tone.
The hospital setting also allows Hughes some playful sight and sound gags. It’s good satire and softens the depiction of harsh treatment for the mentally ill.
No one in cast sags, and several glow in small parts, like Peggy O’Connell as the hospital chief’s flibbertigibbet wife and Glenn Mazen as a hyperblustery judge.
Peggy Pope, as sister Veta, had some opening-night line fluffs, but they snuggled right into her flustery characterization.
Marianne Owen wears well as the frazzled niece, and Tom Spiller is dense and direct as the hospital orderly.
Hugh Landwehr’s sets are excellent. Landwehr also builds in some good special effects, making a stage crossing by Harvey seem almost palpable.
Michael Roth’s music and Steven N. Klein’s sound seamlessly support the proceedings, and Linda Fisher’s costumes reflect early ’40s propriety.