Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Salem State's Theatre Department finds "Harvey"

Ted Silva, as Elwood P. Dowd, in Salem State University’s Theatre Dept. production of Mary Chase’s “Harvey.”

Ted Silva, as Elwood P. Dowd, in Salem State University’s Theatre Dept. production of Mary Chase’s “Harvey.”

You wouldn’t think an invisible rabbit could cause so much trouble.

But Harvey, the most famous theater character that nobody—almost nobody—has ever seen, is the cause of trouble. And hilarity. And insight. And self-awareness—in fact, the cause of just about everything in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play.

The Salem State Theatre Department players, directed by Celena April, are chasing the white rabbit through Oct. 28 in the Sophia Gordon Center. Tackling the 1945 script, made famous first on Broadway, then in the movies, and in subsequent renewals on stages across the globe, has its challenges.

Ted Silva plays Elwood P. Dowd, the optimistic partier whose invisible friend makes everyone crazy. Delaney Jenkins plays his sister Veta, whose notion to commit Elwood to a sanitarium drives the action in the play, and whose realizations fuel its denouement.

The plot revolves around the socially ambitious Veta and her daughter Myrtle (Hannah Cagney), whose attempts at tea-time glory are foiled when the affable Elwood continually introduces his invisible rabbit to their fashionable circle of friends. Something must be done, and sending Elwood to a psychiatric ward becomes the solution.

That works out terribly. But along the way, Harvey starts to become more and more apparent to the other characters, revealing their personal foibles, inner dreams and some humorous possibilities.

Harvey steals the show, but Elwood has the best lines. Peter Sellers’ unforgettable Chauncey Gardner, from the 1979 movie “Being There,” must have been at least partially drawn from Elwood P. Dowd. Spinning homespun platitudes, they both negotiate an uptight world in a state of blissful ignorance.

The difference largely comes from what happens around them. The humor in “Being There” derives from what characters do with the paper-thin wisdom spouted by Chauncey. In “Harvey,” the humor comes sit-com style, as one mishap leads inevitably to the next misadventure.

April’s direction works hard to establish the characters, especially those whose growth fuels the eventual outcome. Veta and Myrtle both speak with prim enunciation, a kind of forced affect that immediately details their social ambitions. We know who there are, not from what they say, but how they say it. Jenkins does terrific work characterizing Veta, the unhinged sister who believably comes around to understanding her brother’s reality.

Silva’s Elwood is a work of theatrical genius. Soft-spoken and polite, Elwood P. Dowd loves the world, and only sees the world loving him back. Ambition for Elwood means the next drink, and the company of friends. Including Harvey.

Chase’s pre-television era dialogue takes some getting use to. Character’s lines are delivered station-to-station, not in the rapid-fire, overlapping manner we’ve become accustomed to hearing. It’s not dated jargon—it’s dated pace. 

That causes the humor to unfold slowly. But it’s genuine—this is not an exercise in campy nostalgia. “Harvey” is a living manuscript that bears up on the contemporary stage. There are embarrassingly sexist moments—Mike Ragone, playing the sanitarium goon Duane Wilson, has a real challenge making that palooka seem realistic. But generally April’s direction runs straightforwardly at the script, not trying to make any meta-statements or obvious updates.

Some of the blocking came off as wooden, with characters moving inefficiently without purpose. And the handling of some properties—a cigar-smoking scene, plucked flowers, some telephone calls—needed to be crisper to avoid distraction. 

The two sets—the Dowd drawing room, and the psychiatrist’s waiting room—work well, and the transitions between the two allow audiences to appreciate the impressive Gordon Center tech machinery. Costumes (Jane Hillier-Walkowiak) are spot-on: Veta’s snow-down-south slip, peeking out from under her floral dress, speaks volumes about her character in just a few visible inches. 

The arch diction works well characterizing Veta and Myrtle, but less well in smaller roles. The high-society dame Ethel Chauvenet (Mary Sapp) and the blustery Judge Gaffney (Christopher Raul Vega) seem a hamstrung with the forced style of delivery. 

Non-conformity forms the message in “Harvey”—how we react to it, and how we identify it in ourselves. The most visible non-conformist in the play—the idealistic Elwood P. Dowd—has an invisible friend to help us find the way.

Salem State University’s Theatre Department presents Mary Chase’s “Harvey” in the Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, 356 Lafayette St., Salem, through Oct. 28. For tickets and information visit www.salemstatetickets.com or call 978 542-6365.

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