The Utah Shakespearean Festival production of “Harvey” marks the fifth time I have seen this show, but it marks the first time I have thought the play was funny.
“Harvey” comes from a different generation, a time when getting a few chuckles was considered a rip-roaring evening at the theater; and a time when people laughed at things we wouldn’t laugh at now, due to cultural differences. Staging the play for a modern audience so that it gets more than just a few chuckles is the trick — a trick that, as aforesaid, I’ve never seen a theater accomplish, until now.
Turns out the belly laughs are not to be found in Mary Chase’s script, which is quaint, mildly amusing, and too-gentle. They are in the performances. Director Henson Keys — who two years ago acted in USF’s production of “Noises Off,” which was the funniest production of THAT play I’ve ever seen, too — assembled a cast of talented actors who evidently refused to give up until they found a way to make this thing work.
Are there moments where actors appear to be trying too hard to get laughs? Yes, a few. Are there characters who are “zany” but in an unfocused way, straining for comedy at the expense of realism? Yes, a couple. We will address those momentarily, but first we will lavish praise upon Libby George.
Libby George is consistently the funniest character actress at USF. (She was in that “Noises Off,” too.) She plays Veta Louise Simmons in “Harvey,” the fusty old woman who is embarrassed by her brother Elwood’s befriending of an invisible 6-foot rabbit, and she conquers the role with sublime little touches: covering the telephone receiver with a handkerchief instead of her hand when she means to put the person “on hold”; a flounce of the wrist here; a sudden fury in the voice there. Lines that have never been funny before are hilarious now.
The same must also be said of Leslie Brott, who proves there are no small roles, only small actors. She appears in just one scene, as socialite Ethel Chauvenet, but in that scene she dominates the stage. Mrs. Chauvenet’s dialogue shoots out of Brott as if from a cannon. She hollers good-naturedly at Elwood and flings her gaudy fur stole around with the carelessness of a woman who has money but knows she doesn’t deserve it. Leave it to Brott to make the character with the fewest lines in the play one of the most memorable.
Elwood himself is played by Sam Stewart (no relation, one assumes, to Jimmy), and he is all folksy charm and gentility. Of special note is the way the other characters react to him: They don’t know how to take him. His sincerity is off-putting, which I find both realistic and amusing.
Also of note is Dr. Sanderson, the younger psychiatrist at Chumley’s Rest, where Veta wants to put Elwood. Martin Kildare plays the role looking and posing like a ’50s soap opera doctor. The man speaks with a swagger. It’s a beautiful character choice.
On the down side, there are Anne Newhall as Chumley’s wife and Jeffrey Nauman as Wilson, an intern at the sanitarium. Both are examples of unfocused vividness: The characters are strong, but there’s no honesty to them. Simply put, they don’t seem like real people, the way everyone else in the cast does.
Elwood says, “I wrestled with reality for 40 years. I’m happy to say I finally won out over it.” Theater companies have wrestled with “Harvey” for 50 years. I’m happy to say someone has finally won out over it.
I once saw a production of this play that was so bad, I couldn't review it. (No one knew about the production anyway, so not reviewing it didn't do the readers a disservice.) It was at a dinner theater in Alpine, Utah, or thereabouts. Everyone in the cast had the same last name. I think the dinner was good, though.