Nor­mal is over­rated, says com­edy clas­sic

War­time chest­nut long in the tooth, but its mes­sage is undi­min­ished

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

SEE­ING is be­liev­ing in Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize win­ner Har­vey, about a lik­able bach­e­lor whose best friend is a six­foot-tall white rab­bit that’s in­vis­i­ble to ev­ery­one else. It takes a while to be­lieve in this quaint an­tique about delu­sion and re­al­ity, which opened the 2013-14 Royal Manitoba The­atre Cen­tre sea­son Thurs­day. The corny jokes and the mouldy style of over­act­ing take a while to get used to, but it soon be­comes ap­par­ent that there’s more to this whim­si­cal com­edy of er­rors than meets the eye. The 150-minute show’s buy-in is El­wood P. Dowd, a rab­bit-lover who ap­pears never to have had an un­char­i­ta­ble thought. Is he sim­ply some rube, an easy tar­get for fast-talk­ing tele­phone mag­a­zine sales­peo­ple who hit him up for sub­scrip­tions for both him­self and Har­vey? Or is he an en­dear­ing ec­cen­tric who has found a peace only he can see? El­wood re­calls the words of his mother, who ad­vised him that in this world, “‘You must be oh, so smart or oh, so pleas­ant.’ For years I was smart. I rec­om­mend pleas­ant.” Chase’s play proves to be both. El­wood lives in a Vic­to­rian man­sion with his so­cial-climb­ing sis­ter Veta and her wannabe debu­tante daugh­ter Myr­tle Mae. Both see him and his habit of in­tro­duc­ing Har­vey to ev­ery­one he meets as a stain on the fam­ily name, mak­ing them high so­ci­ety’s laugh­ing­stock. The lat­est em­bar­rass­ment com­pels them to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize him at Chum­ley’s Rest Sana­to­rium, but Veta is so overzeal­ous in de­tail­ing El­wood’s so­called in­san­ity that she gets checked in and her brother walks out free. The slap­stick-cum-farce that en­sues makes El­wood’s seren­ity prefer­able to all those around him, who are driven into a frenzy by Har­vey’s un­seen pres­ence. He be­comes far more lik­able and trust­wor­thy than the phoney, sup­pos­edly sane peo­ple with ul­te­rior mo­tives. Di­rec­tor Ann Hodges main­tains the del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween Har­vey as mo­ral­ity tale and car­toon, while opt­ing to play down the ef­fects of Har­vey’s daily tip­pling in the bars. Mark Craw­ford, in his Winnipeg de­but as El­wood, is so con­vinc­ing that we be­gin to see Har­vey, too. His mea­sured aw-shucks speech makes El­wood ap­pear slow but his folksy wis­dom be­gins to land with im­pact and wins con­verts. At times, Craw­ford even sounds like Jimmy Stewart, whose in­deli­ble per­for­mance as El­wood in the beloved 1950 movie ver­sion was a sig­na­ture role. Stag­ing visu­ally rich pe­riod pieces is an RMTC spe­cialty, and Har­vey is el­e­gantly dressed up in stylish hats and furs for the con­trast­ing two worlds cre­ated by de­signer Brian Per­chaluk — the warm, stately wood-pan­elled Dowd li­brary and the cold, ster­ile sana­to­rium. Veta be­comes an in­hab­i­tant of both and the stand-in for the au­di­ence, who learn that nor­mal is not al­ways a good thing. Cather­ine Fitch plays the prig­gish Veta as some­what batty her­self and ex­cels in the phys­i­cal com­edy re­quired for the scene where she re­turns di­shev­elled and be­wil­dered, de­scrib­ing the trauma she ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing her short stay in the sana­to­rium. The cap­per is watch­ing the bliss­ful face of Alissa Wat­son as Mry­tle Mae, who fi­nally gets some scraps of relief from her pent-up sex­ual frus­tra­tion. Most of the sup­port­ing roles played by Win­nipeg­gers are ef­fec­tively per­formed. As self-im­por­tant psy­chi­a­trist Dr. San­der­son and his smit­ten nurse Kelly, Jeremy Walm­s­ley and Laura Olaf­son en­joy a clas­sic screw­ball mo­ment in which their out­ward dis­like hardly con­ceals their pas­sion for each other. As the some­times brutish or­derly Wil­son, the de­pend­able Cory Wo­j­cik sup­plies the hard­ness that rep­re­sents so­ci­ety’s in­tol­er­ance of non­con­for­mity, along with an un­ex­pected touch of the ladies’ man. Harry Nelken makes a late but es­sen­tial ap­pear­ance as a cab driver who de­liv­ers Chase’s most pointed re­minder that per­fectly nor­mal hu­man be­ings are too of­ten un­pleas­ant peo­ple. It’s a mes­sage that has res­onated for nearly 70 years that has brought Har­vey into fo­cus for a lot of au­di­ence mem­bers. Any­one who is dif­fer­ent is re­ha­bil­i­tated, in this case with drugs, into some­one that so­ci­ety deems nor­mal. With Har­vey, which de­buted dur­ing the dark days of the Sec­ond World War, Chase sought mercy for the world’s pe­cu­liars. That plea never grows old.

LEIF NOR­MAN PHOTO

From left, Steven Rat­zlaff, Jeremy Walm­s­ley, Cather­ine Fitch, John B. Lowe, Mark Craw­ford and Alissa Wat­son.

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