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Theatre Charlotte: Have You Met My Rabbit?

by Carrie Nowell

January 28, 2015

Photo caption: Jennifer Lauren (Nurse Kelly) and Tony Wright (Elwood P. Dowd) share a moment with Harvey (not pictured, ever).

 

Silent acting, cross-dressing and performing conjoined as twins are a few of theatre history’s more notably taxing roles. Yet the ultimate test of a seasoned thespian may be performing alongside a transparent costar, especially a six-and-a-half-foot tall white rabbit named “Harvey.” Under the able direction of Corey Mitchell, Tony Wright (Elwood P. Dowd), Poppy Pritchett (Veta Louise Simmons) and the Main Stage Productions cast master the feat quite handily, bringing to life the fuzzy imaginary friend in the opening performance of Harvey at Theatre Charlotte. (The production runs through Feb. 8.)

Through the local sanitarium’s comedic quest to uncover and commit the real framer of rabbit Harvey, the honest and relatable performance suggests we’re all a little bit mad, but the things that drive us crazy just might not be worth living without.

Originally written by Mary Chase in 1944, Harvey is a classic that has been successfully revived countless times on stage and film — most notably recently with the Spring 2012 Broadway reproduction starring Jim Parsons (the ungainly, neurotic physicist Sheldon on CBS’s Big Bang Theory) as Elwood. Of course it’s a long way from Broadway to the Theatre Charlotte, but the humble venue, nuzzled in Myers Park, is really a perfect milieu to take the audience back to a simpler, niftier time.

That’s thanks in part to the set, which offers an immersive experience. Polished and ornate, the Dowd Mansion library is embellished with doilies, a brass cradle telephone and a seated portrait painting above the mantle. Although changes between scenes were uncomfortably lengthy, the product was worth the wait. Contrasting the warm and inviting Dowd study, the clean, pastel-blue walls of the sanitarium — coupled with the crisp white nurses’ cloaks in the second setting — evoke that unsettlingly cold doctor’s office-feel and the recognition that a hospital is not a home.

Despite his cheery, oblivious disposition, Elwood P. Doud does not inspire a lot of confidence about his grasp of reality. To the dismay of his socialite sister, Veta Louise, and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Linsday Anderson), Elwood and his imaginary buddy Harvey go everywhere together. What Harvey lacks in physical presence he makes up for in personality, thanks to Wright’s bewildered disposition and captivating banter with blank space.  The star of CPCC’s production of Harvey 10 years prior, Wright’s second stab at the kooky character is certainly the spark of the play’s magic. Several minutes may pass without reference to the furry figment, but Harvey remains a mesmerizing character in the action, and an eerie reality for Veta.

After their mother’s passing, Veta and Myrtle move in with Elwood at the Dowd Mansion and become the laughing stocks of their neighborhood. Willing to do almost anything to rid themselves of Elwood and his foolish imaginary friend, Veta attempts to commit Elwood to the sanitarium. Trouble brews when the psychiatrists are unable to distinguish the lunatic from the sane, and Veta is committed while Elwood is released. 

Pritchett’s interpretation of the batty, melodramatic Veta is another standout performance of the show, generating wild laughter from the audience, many likely reminiscing over their own crazy aunts. Although comedic at times, Pritchett’s desperate, unhinged interpretation emphasizes the play’s deep satire of mankind’s maddening aspiration for normality.  Her performance transcends the bounds of community theatre — her uncanny resemblance to Hollywood actress Christine Baranski doesn’t hurt — and leaves the audience pensive but optimistic about their next bout of insanity. 

Theatre Charlotte’s production is a delicate balance between comedy and commentary. More than just the sum of a few hysterically relatable characters, Harvey is a platform for unpacking our definitions of crazy and challenging how we treat the mentally ill —an increasingly important conversation, invisible rabbit or no.

 This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation

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Tags: Harvey, Mary Chase, Theatre Charlotte

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