Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Also see Patrick's review of Lua Hadar: C'est Magnifique
It would, I believe, be difficult to find a kinder, gentler, more sincere, more guileless character in all of American theatre than Elwood P. Dowd, the delusional naif at the heart of Harvey, Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Elwood is as pleasant and agreeable as they come. One could say to a fault, but its hard to find fault with someone so unfailingly selfless and generous. Elwood aspires to (and succeeds at) following the advice his mother gave him as a child: "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Elwood chose pleasant.
Thanks in great part to Steve Price, the actor inhabiting Elwood P. Dowd, the Ross Valley Players production is oh so pleasant, as well. And in our complex and often frightening world, isn't a pleasant evening at the theater sometimes exactly what you need? I like to be intellectually challenged as much as the next man. And I wish Mr. Price had a more polished troupe of comic actors to complement his sweet and subdued portrayal. But should the need arise for a pleasant, undemanding evening designed to make you smile and feel good about people, get yourself to the charming Barn Theatre in Ross before December 15.
If you've never seen the play (Jim Parsons played Elwood last year on Broadway) or the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, here's the gist: Elwood lives quietly in an unnamed American town with his sister Veta Louise (Pamela Ciochetti) and her daughter Myrtle Maye (Robyn Grahn). Where Elwood is all about sincerity, never lying, never pretending to be anything other than what he is, Veta Louise cares mostly about her image and social standing, hoping to make a good match for Myrtle Maye. That's tough with Elwood in the house. Well, not Elwood, but Harvey, a six-foot one-and-a-half-inch tall white rabbit. Though only he can see him, that doesn't stop Elwood from introducing Harvey to Veta Louise's society friends at her Wednesday Forum tea party.
Veta Louise has had quite enough of Elwood's shenanigans and decides to have him committed to Chumley's Rest, the local sanitarium. (She can't just kick her brother to the street; she's both too kind for that, and the deed is in Elwood's name.) The sanitarium is headed by noted psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (Norman Hall), assisted (ably, to a lesser or greater degree) by Nurse Kelly (Lydia Singleton) and the new shrink in town, handsome Dr. Sanderson (Philip Goleman). When Veta Louise confesses to Dr. Sanderson that after all these years of living with her brother's hallucinations sometimes she sees Harvey, too, the confusion and comedy begin in earnest. (Farce, actually, what with mistaken identities, doors that open and close to revealor concealcharacters at just the right comic moment, and general exaggerated nature of the story.)
It all takes place on one of the more interesting set designs to come out of the Ross Valley Players scenery shop in several years. Though the finishes and furnishing still lack a certain professionalism and the sanitarium doesn't look quite institutional enough, there's nothing amateurish about the change between the Dowd home and the sanitarium. Set designer Ken Rowland and his crew deserve serious kudos for a significant transformation that happens quickly and quietly. Costume designer Michael A. Berg has done excellent work, as well, evoking a period without overselling. The clothes fit the roles and the actors quite nicely.
As Veta Louise, Ms. Ciochetti has big shoes to fill, since most people's experience of the role will be Josephine Hull's interpretation, which won her a Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Ciochetti works hard at bringing us the stress and panic of Veta Louise. But there's a sense of being caught (like a rabbit in a trap) that doesn't come through. We sense Veta Louise's anxiety, but not her desperation. Still, when she returns home from her first, extremely stressful visit to the sanitarium, Ciochetti manages to milk quite a bit of mirth from her character's misfortune.
Robyn Grahn's Myrtle Maye is a sexually frustrated young woman, longing to connect with someone real, but unable to break free from the family constellation and achieve launch velocity into an orbit of her own. Unfortunately, the main man interested in her is the sanitariums orderly Mr. Wilson, played here by Russell Lessig. Unfortunately, because not only would her mother find Mr. Wilson entirely unacceptable socially, but also because Lessig's attempts at physical comedy are both out of balance with the rest of the cast and not very funny on their own.
Robyn Wiley's Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet, on the other hand, is a sparkling tonic every time she steps on stage and had me wondering what the show would be like if she and Ms. Ciochetti had been cast in each other's role.
Ultimately, though, this is Steve Price's show. Although at times he seems to be trying to channel Jimmy Stewart, for the most part he brings his own individual brand of sweet, simple gentleness to the role. Both the text and Price's portrayal have a kind of Buddhist sensibility to them. Elwood's line, "I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am," could just as easily be uttered at a dharma talk at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
The question at stake in Harvey is, who's the crazy one here? Is it really Elwood and his imaginary friend? Or is it Veta Louise, caring so much about what people think of her? Perhaps it's Doctor Chumley, whose years of treating the deranged have left him with a little of what would probably be diagnosed today at PTSD.
Regardless, there is plenty of craziness to go around, a good chunk of it taking place on stage at the Barn Theatre.
Harvey plays Thursdays-Sundays through December 15 at the Barn Theatre in Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Weekend ticket prices are $26 general admission, $22 for seniors (62+) and $13 for children under 18. Thursday night tickets are $20 for all ages. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting www.rossvalleyplayers.com.