Wichita Community Theatre tries a nontraditional holiday show with ‘Harvey’
For both its director and leading man, Wichita Community Theatre’s production of “Harvey” brings back warm feelings.
For director Mary TushGreen, it’s a reminder of a visit to a cousin who played the part of Elwood P. Dowd, a man who befriends the titular unseen, 6-foot rabbit.
Her cousin, Charlie Hill, was a former Emporia State University theater history professor who had a picture of himself and Harvey above his fireplace.
“I remember asking him when I was 5 or 6 years old, ‘Why do you have that portrait of you with a rabbit?’” she recalled.
“Oh, that’s me and Harvey,” he replied.
“He told me what Harvey was and I just accepted it and went on my merry way,” Tush-Green added. “I absolutely accept Harvey as a living, breathing thing.”
For Ed Baker, playing Elwood is an homage to his mentor, longtime Wichita State theater department director Dick Welsbacher, who played the role several times. Welsbacher (who died at age 89 in 2015), for whom the theater at WSU is named, played the role several times, but Baker never saw him play that role.
“Now I’m kind of glad I didn’t get to see him do it, because it leaves me free to do what I do,” said Baker, associate professor and
technical director for the WSU school of performing arts. “I hope it’s OK.”
The Wichita Community Theatre production, which opened this week and continues through Dec. 9, won playwright Mary Chase the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1944. It’s also a beloved 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood. Baker has never seen the movie, and TushGreen is a fan of the film but hasn’t watched it since
agreeing to direct the show.
“I tried my hardest not to let any preconceived notions into what my actors were doing,” she said. “I let them do their own thing.”
Tush-Green did stop Baker during a recent rehearsal, however, because the actor had added a Stewart- ish stammer to his delivery. “Don’t be Jimmy Stewart,” she told him, “do your own thing.”
Baker’s appearance was a key to him getting cast, Tush-Green said. The actresses picked to play Elwood’s sister and niece, Theresa Dombrowski and Jerusha Lofland, respectively, bore a resemblance to him.
“The three of them together look like a family,” Tush-Green said.
Baker said he approached the role “with a small dose of great hope and a great dose of trepidation.” “It’s a little overwhelming. It’s a lot of words,” he said. “Once you get past the words, there are a lot of feels in there. It would be easy to play a drunk fella who sees a friendly rabbit, but I don’t think that’s what this story is. I think it’s a lot more than that.”
Baker said he sees Elwood’s story with a different perspective.
“There’s something to be said for the way that we all experience the world that happens around us,” he said. “The world that happens around us is not always filled with things that we can see. I don’t think it’s a story about a man and his rabbit, I think it’s a story about how everybody else deals with this man who has a rabbit.”
Behind the scenes a great deal in his day job, Baker said he appreciates any chance he can to get on stage.
“It’s a blessing that I get to do what I love to do,” he said.
“Harvey” is in the holiday time slot for WCT even though it takes place in the spring and Christmas is never mentioned.
“We could change it, but I didn’t see any reason to,” Tush-Green said. “It’s a family show. You could bring smaller kids to it. … It’s something the whole family can do together.”
The Wichita Community Theatre’s production of Harvey runs through Dec. 9.