Before reviewing the Villa Playhouse Theatre’s current production of “Harvey,” let’s consider the purposes of community theater.
Community theater does not exist to stage Broadway-quality, grade-A productions of controversial, avant-garde material. It exists, rather, to give local citizens a chance to be involved with a production, whether in acting, directing, or in other behind-the-scenes work. In a small town like Springville, home of the Villa Playhouse Theatre, community theater also usually focuses on familiar, family-friendly shows. That’s why most of them have performances on Mondays — “Family Home Evening” night for a majority of folks in Utah.
So it would be unfair to criticize the Villa’s “Harvey” too roughly for its sometimes hilarious unprofessionalism. Lights not going on and off at the right times, actors forgetting lines, set pieces in the wrong place — these things actually add to the charm of a small-town theater production. So who cares if the biggest laugh of opening night was when an actor picked up the phone before it rang? You don’t walk in expecting the Royal Shakespeare Company; you expect to see a modest, entertaining production, and for the sets not to fall over.
Those requirements are met (the last one just barely) by the Villa’s production of “Harvey.” Mary Chase’s play won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart; both the play and the film have been very popular and long-lived. It’s a gentle comedy about a man, Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a six-foot rabbit, Harvey, whom no one else can see. Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise the socialite, wants to put him away in a sanitarium, but they wind up committing her instead, and lots of wackiness ensues. Some elements are out-dated now, but overall the play has held up pretty well over the years.
Several parts are played by different actors depending on which night you see it; this review is of the Monday/Friday cast. Greg Peters is by far the best actor of the group. His Elwood is unfailingly polite, sweet, and simple, and yet he exists in a world where people are phony and full of ulterior motives. He says things like, “My regards to you and whoever else you might run into tonight,” and means it.
Maridell Pearson and Anita Adkins, as his sister and niece, are the first characters onstage, and once you get used to their particular styles of overacting and melodrama, the characters are actually rather endearing. This is the case with most — though not all — of the actors. At first you can’t get past the unpolished acting form, but then it grows on you. As I said before, it becomes part of the charm.
This was the first of many shows that I saw with my pal Chris Bentley, and we got quite a kick out of how off-kilter the show was. The man who played Wilson and the woman who played the secretary were among the most irritating people ever to walk on the earth, and we LOVED how the characters kept responding to noises before they happened. You'll notice I went really easy on them in this review. I didn't see what good it would do to trash a harmless little community theater show. You'll also notice that I could no longer abide by this policy when I saw "The Storm Testament" there. By that time, they had overstepped the boundaries of "harmless."