Monday, July 18, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of The First String Players' production of Harvey at Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The First String Players' production of Harvey at Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Written by Mary Chase
Directed by Mary Lynch
Produced by Paul Morisi & Stef Morisi
Our Lady Of Mercy Roman Catholic Church
70-01 Kessel Street
Forest Hills, New York 11375
Reviewed 7/15/16  

Harvey is a 1944 play written by Mary Chase, who received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work in 1945. It premiered on Broadway on November 1, 1944, at the 48th Street Theatre and closed on January 15, 1949, after 1,775 performances. A Broadway revival at the ANTA Theatre ran from February 24, 1970 to May 2, 1970. In May, 2012, a new production of the original play began previews in New York City at the Studio 54 Theatre. This Roundabout Theatre Company production ran from June 14, 2012 to August 5, 2012. The play is about Elwood P. Dowd, an affable, amiable, alcoholic who lived with his mother in the Old Dowd Mansion. Upon her death, he inherited the home and invited his sister Veta Louise Simmons, and her daughter Myrtle May, to live with him. Elwood claims to have a best friend named Harvey, a 6 foot, 1 1/2 inch white rabbit (or Pooka), who can predict the future and stop time. He introduces his invisible friend Harvey to everyone, thus making him "the biggest screwball in town." Veta conspires with Judge Omar Gaffney, the executor of her mother's estate, to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium, Chumley's Rest Home, while Veta's daughter Myrtle places her uncle's house up for sale in anticipation of her mother being named his guardian.

In the reality of the show, Harvey is definitely real but he is also "choosy and takes his time making up his mind about people" before deciding whether to allow them to be able to see and talk with him. He is a Pooka, from old Celtic mythology, defined in the play as "a fairy spirit in animal form - always very large. The Pooka appears here and there - now and then - to this one and that one - a benign but mischievous creature - very fond of rumpots, crackpots" - and eccentric raconteurs such as Elwood P. Dowd, who will invite telephone magazine salespeople, taxi cab drivers and even other men's wives down to a bar for a drink or over to his home for dinner. His sister, Veta Louise, has seen Harvey, as has Dr. William R. Chumley, his psychiatrist. Harvey has even spoken to Duane Wilson, the sanitarium attendant, who has a brief physical encounter with Myrtle May, not the refined society debutante she portrays herself to be.  

In response to a query about how he met Harvey and how he knew that was his name, Elwood P. Dowd explained, "I'd just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying. Well, anyway, I was walking down along the street and I heard this voice saying, "Good evening, Mr. Dowd." Well, I turned around and here was this big six-foot rabbit leaning up against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that because when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everyone knows your name. And naturally, I went over to chat with him. And he said to me, 'Ed Hickey was a little spiffed this evening, or could I be mistaken?' Well, of course, he was not mistaken. I think the world of Ed, but he was spiffed. Well, we talked like that for awhile and then I said to him, 'You have the advantage on me. You know my name and I don't know yours.' And right back at me he said, 'What name do you like?' Well, I didn't even have to think twice about that. Harvey's always been my favorite name. So I said to him, 'Harvey'. And, uh, this is the interesting thing about the whole thing: He said, 'What a coincidence. My name happens to be Harvey'." 

In trying to psychoanalyze Elwood, Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the Assistant Director of Chumley's Rest Home, said, "Think carefully, Dowd. Didn't you know somebody, sometime, someplace by the name of Harvey? Didn't you ever know anybody by that name?" Elwood responds, "No, no, not one, Doctor. Maybe that's why I always had such hopes for it." Dr. Chumley, who drank to excess with Harvey and now can't shake him, responded by saying, "Fly specks, fly specks! I've been spending my life among fly specks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts at 18th and Fairfax!" Elwood P. Dowd is an easy going guy who always has "a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I'm with." His mother used to say to him, "In this world, you can be oh so so smart, or oh so pleasant." Elwood said, "Well, for years I was smart...I recommend being pleasant." He went on to say, "I've wrestled with reality for 40 years and I'm happy to state, I finally won out over it."

Dr. Chumley tried to warn Elwood about what was going on. He said, "This sister of yours is at the bottom of a conspiracy against you. She's trying to persuade me to lock you up. Today, she had commitment papers drawn up. She has your power of attorney and the key to your safety box, and she brought you here!" Expressing no "righteous indignation," Elwood said, "My sister did all that in one afternoon. That Veta certainly is a whirlwind, isn't she?" Elwood was willing to place his family's happiness over that of his own, and once he confirmed Veta wanted him to take Formula 977, which would prevent him from being able to ever see Harvey again, he consented. Formula 977 would return him "to the state of a perfectly normal human being." Harvey came to the rescue by temporarily hiding Veta's change purse so she was unable to pay the taxi driver for the ride out to the sanitarium. She asked him to wait five minutes so she could get the money from Elwood but he wouldn't wait, so Elwood was called out. The Taxi Driver got paid and then mentioned to Veta what a pleasant fellow Elwood was. He explained that once patients are "treated," their sense of wonder disappears  and their personalities change. They become "perfectly normal" and as the taxi driver said, "You know what bastards they can be!" Fearing the effect of treatment on her brother's personality, she decides to accept Elwood as he is, even if  that means living with Harvey as well. In the end, love of family wins out over greed.

In the beginning of the play, we are presented with Veta, a selfish sister who is more concerned about her social standing in society and the marriage prospects for her daughter Myrtle May, than she is with the happiness of her brother, who invited them to live in his home. Veta is bad enough but slutty Myrtle May is even worse. She tells her mother, "people get run over by trucks every day. Why can't something like that happen to Uncle Elwood." Elwood's unselfish, infectious love may have ultimately changed Veta's mind about wanting Elwood to take Formula 977. The second major theme is a criticism of psychiatric institutions. It views psychiatric treatment as damaging perfectly pleasant people and turning them into regular, normal human beings. That may have been true in 1944 when women who didn't want to clean the house, have sex with their husbands, or take care of their children, were sent to sanitariums for "treatment," but it is less true today when the goal of treatment is to help you to function more effectively in daily life. Nevertheless, the play must be interpreted in the context of the decade in which it was written. Veta eventually recognizes there must be more than mere reality to make life worthwhile. She reflected this understanding when she said, "I took a course in art last winter. I learned the difference between a fine oil painting, and a mechanical thing, like a photograph. The photograph shows only the reality. The painting shows not only the reality but the dream behind it. It's our dreams, doctor, that carry us on. They separate us from the beasts. I wouldn't want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating, and sleeping, and taking my clothes off...I mean putting them on."

Cecilia Vaicels and Nicole O'Connor played Veta Louise and Myrtle May, respectively, in this production. They successfully portrayed their characters as perfectly despicable, hateful people with few redeeming qualities. Jim Haines hit the right balance in the main role of Elwood P. Dowd, a friendly alcoholic who spent his days in bars, in firehouses playing pinochle, and inviting all sorts of strangers to his home for dinner or downtown for a drink. I was impressed with the performance of Jeremy Lardieri, who played sanitarium attendant Duane Wilson. He exhibited just the right amount of raw sexual energy to make his character interesting. Nick Radu was excellent as Lyman Sanderson, M.D. but his love/hate relationship with Ruth Kelly R.N., played by Malini Singh-McDonald, lacked passion and credibility. Kevin Abernethy had a strong stage presence as Judge Omar Gaffney and the rest of the cast exhibited many talents in their respective roles.

Harvey is a play for those looking for light-hearted entertainment and a story with a happy ending. Dreamers, Believers & the Young At Heart will particularly enjoy this show. This is the second production I have seen by The First String Players ( and I highly recommend you check them out. They present quality entertainment at a reasonable price! Friendly staff, general seating, and reasonably priced concessions only add to the good experience you will have at one of their shows!

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