On its surface, Mary Chase’s “Harvey” is a light bit of escapist whimsy, and it’s OK if you take it that way.
As such, it is a rewarding, at-times-hilarious experience, complete with a delusional naïf of a man, Elwood P. Dowd, and his imaginary friend Harvey, a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. But, if you take a moment to consider the play, it’s possible to take real wisdom from it, as well as mirth. It’s possible that in Dowd, played with open-face earnestness by Vance Jennings in the new Warehouse Theatre production of “Harvey,” we have a template for a more open and emotionally honest life.
Dowd, Jennings says, always puts others first, takes things as they come without lament, and seems, in some ways — despite his best friend being an invisible, talking rabbit — to be the most well-adjusted person in his world.
“I’d like to be like him,” Jennings said before a rehearsal earlier this week. “To chill out a little bit and be open to possibilities.”
Perhaps because of his identification with the character, Jennings’ Dowd is the absolute highlight of the play, which opens Friday at the Akin Center Theatre. He gives inner life to a character who is, at heart, an open book. This is a difficult concept to explain, and I’m not sure Jennings himself planned it or is even aware of it, but his Dowd has, underneath all of the charming innocence, a hint of sadness, an awareness that on some level he needed Harvey to come into his life and save it. He shares that with Jimmy Stewart’s famous film version of the character, though the portrayals are otherwise very little alike.
Jennings has seen that version, which earned Stewart an Oscar nomination, but he didn’t rely on it to create his own Elwood P. Dowd.
“I tried to build it from scratch,” Jennings said. “The character is a great character as written.”
The play’s director, Stephen Clark, echoed that sentiment, saying he trusted the cast to make the roles their own.
“Our intention was never to do the film on stage,” he said. “I intentionally haven’t watched the film, because I don’t want to do Jimmy Stewart’s ‘Harvey.’”
That much of the film version’s mix of whimsy and wisdom is evident in the Warehouse production speaks to the performers’ ability, he said. It’s a cast stocked with Warehouse veterans. Jennings’ wife, Sandy, plays Dowd’s social-climbing sister, Veta Simmons, with busybody aplomb.
“She is a high-strung, fussy little woman who is trying to look out for everybody but tends to make things worse,” Sandy Jennings said. “She is oblivious with a capital O.”
The reliably talented Monica Sevigny plays Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae Simmons, with the me-first exasperation one would expect from a teenager with an embarrassing uncle. Gary Gresham exudes authority as sanitarium director Dr. William Chumley. Aimee Hostetler steals an early scene as comically exaggerated aging socialite Mrs. Chauvenet. Mimi Applebaum does a nice slow-burn from rational to crazed as Nurse Kelly. And newcomer Kyle Watts is believable as the handsome-but-oblivious Dr. Sanderson.
“Having a cast like that lends a sense of ease to my job as a director and makes the whole process a lot less stressful,” Clark said.
Having a cast he can count on was particularly important for this show, which up until this week was rehearsing at Mount Olive Lutheran Church. The Warehouse Theatre’s home inside the Allied Arts building has been inaccessible since the building was deemed unsafe by the city late last year. The company’s winter show, “A Christmas Carol,” was produced at the Akin Center Theatre, as this show will be. But the theater wasn’t available for rehearsal until Monday, Clark said.
It’s an in-the-round theater, too, which is something not all of the players have experienced before. But Clark said he’s confident they’ll be able to use that to their advantage.
“There’s an intimacy to it,” he said. “It’s a small stage. And the comedy of this show and the heart behind it really benefit from that. … As a performer, it’s awesome being this close and having the audience all around you. It provides a much more realistic environment.”
That intimacy helps get across Dowd’s zenlike wisdom, too, Jennings said. He doesn’t have to play to the back row of a big theater, so he can give the character more nuance.
“It lets you be subtle,” he said. “You don’t have to be over the top with it.”
So even as those around him grow increasingly hysterical, Jennings is able to give Dowd a sense of groundedness that helps convey the character’s deeper meaning.
As Dowd says, “Years ago, my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ — she always called me Elwood — “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”