I would have thought everyone was familiar with Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning story of "Harvey," made into a now-classic movie with Jimmy Stewart back in 1950.
But judging from the sounds of surprise coming from some sections of the audience at the Winters Community Theater production that debuted last weekend, perhaps the story isn't as well known as I assumed.
Trent Beeby directs a charming little version of this saga of the gentle, clueless and probably more than slightly inebriated Elwood P. Dowd and his constant companion: Harvey, a 6-foot, 31/2-inch white rabbit that only Dowd can see. Harvey is a "pooka," you see: a mischievous Irish spirit. (Or, rather, you don't see.)
Tom Rost gives a wonderful performance as Dowd, the perfect gentleman for whom a tall rabbit seems not in the least odd, and who seems totally oblivious to the chaos and embarrassment that his invisible companion seems to cause. Rost is extraordinarily polite and extremely likable, and gives the character both a childlike innocence and a sense of dignity.
"I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I'm with," Dowd says.
Elwood was the sole recipient of his mother's fortune upon her death, which gives him the freedom to spend his time visiting friends at various drinking establishments.
"Harvey and I sit in the bars ... have a drink or two ... play the juke box," Dowd explains. "And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine, and they smile. And they're saying, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella.' Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers ... soon we have friends."
Elwood is contrasted by his sister, Veta Louise — played by the always delightful Germaine Hupe — who was excluded from her mother's will, and so lives in Elwood's house and is supported by him. Veta Louise is a social climber, and her brother's imaginary companion is a source of great embarrassment, both to her and to her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Molly Davis).
How will Myrtle Mae ever find a proper husband, when her uncle is the town laughingstock?
(I must mention that Myrtle Mae has the best poodle skirt I've ever seen. Kudos to costumers Ann Rost and Germaine Hupe!)
Only one avenue is available to Veta Louise: She must commit her brother to the famous sanitarium run by Dr. William R. Chumley (Michael Barbour), to get Elwood out of her life ... and take over the trust fund.
But the sanitarium is a study in dysfunction: One nurse (Anita Ahuja) flirts blatantly with Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Jim Hewlett), while a sadistic attendant, Duane Wilson (Rodney Orosco), is only too eager to inflict painful procedures on new patients.
He's a male Nurse Ratched — from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" — but with a sardonic wit.
As a result of some confusion about who is the patient — and who is the person admitting the patient — Veta Louise is hauled off to be stripped and put in the baths, while Elwood is ignored.
Veta Louise calls in her attorney, Judge Omar Gaffney — Howard Hupe, whose performance is second only to that given by Rost — hoping to sue the sanitarium for all her indignities.
Meanwhile, Elwood has long discussions with Dr. Chumley about Harvey, as the two men — and the rabbit — make the rounds of various drinking establishments: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."
The play has a dated feel, and occasionally moves very slowly. By the end, though, the audience (along with Dr. Chumley) believes in Harvey.
And gives him a nice round of applause at the curtain call (!).
The cast also includes Anne Castro DePonte as Miss Johnson, Valerie Whitworth as Mrs. Chauvenet, Ann Rost as Betty Chumley, and JoAnn May as the cab driver. Whitworth needs to work on her projection, as she could barely be heard, even in this small theater.
Although likely not the most polished play you'll ever see, this production of "Harvey" displays such charm that you can't help but like it.