HARVEYby Mary Chase
Myrtle Mae Simmons – Kennedy O’Kelley
Veta Louise Simmons – Felicia Bertch
Elwood P. Dowd – Jeremiah Johnson
Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet – Mary Tiner
Ruth Kelly, R.N. – Jo-Jo Steine
Duane Wilson – Tyler Cochran
Lyman Sanderson, M.D. – Carson D. Wright
William R. Chumley, M.D. – Kim Titus
Betty Chumley – Laura Yancey
Judge Omar Gaffney – Bradley Campbell
E.J. Lofgren – Mark Quach
Directed by Dick Monday
Scenic Designer – Clare Floyd Devries
Costume Designer – Becca Janney
Lighting Designer – Aaron Johnson
Sound Designer – Rich Frohlich
Properties Designer – Hillary Collazo Abbott
Production Stage Manager – Michelle Foster
Assistant Stage Manager – Leah Fitzgerald
Producing Artistic Director – Shane Peterman
Reviewed Performance: 2/8/2020
Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
To tell the truth, Harvey’s never been my favorite old chestnut. It’s something to do, perhaps, with my innate preference among old Hollywood “brands of breakfast cereal” (in Marlon Brando’s parlance) for Cary Grant over ol’ George Bailey. Say what you will – when I want my pants charmed off in black and white, I want a hot Brit neurotic who doubles as a subversive jackknife of a comic mastermind, not a cornpone heartlander who just wandered off a Saturday Evening Post cover. Stewart’s chops, comic or dramatic, weren’t far below Grant’s, or anybody’s for that matter. But his brand is a little too American Sweetie-Pie for me, and too many of his big moments involve some way sincere scene-chewery.
Moreover, Harvey is one of his slightest vehicles. I can only chuckle so much at gags about the Rabbit That Isn’t There; can only feel so reassured about the close call by which this man’s really kind of terrible family decide not to incapacitate him for being too darn nice and then go home hugging. And in fact, the play has a deceptive anchor – it’s Veta’s show, validated by Josephine Hull’s Oscar winning turn, the best thing about the film. Somehow Hull pulls you into resenting her motives, chafing at her pretensions, and loving it all nonetheless; feeling terror and sympathy when she bungles her way into a genuine assault, and truly moved when she finally admits her love for her brother and his six-foot-tall peccadillo.
This is the first Harvey I’ve seen where the Veta couldn’t be called “dowdy”. Rail-thin and model-striking, Felicia Bertch is more “vixen”, and also more age-appropriate for her vaguely middle-aged brother and vaguely college-age daughter – Josephine Hull was 31 years older than Stewart, old enough to play his peer Grant’s aunt in the similarly fluffy (poisonings aside) Arsenic and Old Lace. Veta’s anxieties about image are more poignant than usual coming from someone so much closer to youth, Bertch affectingly amplifying the sisterly rather than maternal aspect of this complicated character. She also uses her attenuated, angular frame for concentrated, calculated bursts of physical comedy quite deftly.
The revisionism she represents works, especially since much of this production keeps to the traditional marks, though you’ll have to decide for yourself whether Bertch, who settles in at well over a simmer, effectively conveys Veta’s many subtle emotional arcs. She’s well-matched as a double act, however, by Kennedy O’Kelley, who also does something I haven’t seen before – she leans beautifully into Myrtle’s blithe naivete, where the character has usually been portrayed (sexistly, as was the style at the time) as a pinched and unpleasant paragon of awkwardness. Ms. O’Kelley finds and mines every comic note, making Myrtle a perfect cocktail of received traits, yet scrupulously devoid of personal insight.
O’Kelley is probably the best and most original thing about the production, though she locks perfectly into place, stealing no air from anybody. As stated, most of the rest is fairly conventional Harveying, though the Dr. Sanderson is less of a stiff drip (Carson D. Wright adds a glaze of goofball to his affable professional, and proves irresistible), the Ms. Kelley leaves a more incisive mark than usual (meshing gloriously with Wright, Jo-Jo Steine is a tour-de-force of uninterrupted, sidesplitting reactions), this is the first Judge Gaffney I’ve seen that isn’t a little off somehow (Bradley Campbell, efficient and note-perfect) and the first Dr. Chumley I’ve seen that is (Kim Titus, coming at the character in an eccentric and underhanded way I like). Clare Floyd Devries’ beautiful, judicious wash of scenic design on the opened-up space and Becca Janney’s attractive costumes all code early 20th century. You get two flawlessly deadpan performances in the classic why-I-oughta mode, from Tyler Cochran and Mark Quach.
And you get the kind of Elwood P. Dowd you hope for, if you remember the play fondly first or second or thirdhand (probably not many firsthands, though a number at the showing I attended on the 8th had to come close), or are a kid checking it out for the first time because you were intrigued by a poster with a rabbit silhouette on it one time. The way I see it, post-Stewart, Elwood is a glove for the sort of actor who’s always landed a few leaps away from type “normal” – those who find their strength and survival in comedy, in playing the misfit, in taking weirder paths to primacy, in mastering an otherness.
Elwood allows this sort of actor to still embody this offbeat quality, to wear an invisible rabbit and an eyebrow-raising lifestyle like a coat and fedora, and nevertheless emanate normality from entrance to exit – to finally occupy the skin and soul of the grounded, congenial, and conventionally acceptable leading man who’s proven so elusive at casting calls. That’s the trick of the play – nobody behaves normally in the show except Elwood, but the actor inside him still must emanate a verifiable whiff of the strange. Not even to show it covertly by gesture, but to just undetectably conjure up an aura.
Jeremiah Johnson is one of several actors I’ve seen who seems born to play Elwood. He does it all – wins you over, makes you worry and wonder, betrays no sign of trouble but still gives you pause. I’ve never heard Elwood’s constant, random invitations to join him for a drink as threatening before, as alcoholism in the flesh, and it isn’t because Johnson reads them that way. Here’s a clearly talented, physically and comically gifted actor reveling in simply being, and doing well more than just that in the process. It may not be enough to lift the play out of its built-in ordinariness. But if you’ve ever caught a Harvey and felt struck enough to think about catching another one, that’s probably why you were taken at all.
15650 Addison Rd. in Addison, TX, 75001. 972-450-6232.
Runs February 12th & 13th and 19th & 20th at 7:30pm, February 14th & 15th and 21st & 22nd at 8pm, and 16th and 23rd at 2pm. Tickets available at https://watertowertheatre.org/event/harvey/2020-02-06.