Arts Listings

The Ever Affable ‘Harvey’ at Contra Costa Civic Theatre

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

“As you can see, he’s a Pooka,” explains Elwood P. Dowd, straightening the tie and smoothing the ears of his big, invisible friend. “Don’t be disturbed. He stares like that at everybody.” 

Since the mid-20th century, in which time the play’s set, Harvey has seen multitudes come and go in leading and supporting roles—but the title role has always been played by the same six-foot (or so) invisible rabbit who originated the part. 

But not invisible to Elwood, whom Harvey befriended one evening many years before the play’s action (and there’s a lot of crazy action, as well as crazy talk; a little bit of both, appropriately enough, in a sanitarium). Elwood can see his dear friend and is eager to introduce him to everybody he meets. And Elwood meets and befriends everybody. 

A laconic James Stewart, playing it his own way, helped make Mary Chase’s comedy into a memorable motion picture.  

And the late Louis Flynn, who co-founded Contra Costa Civic Theatre with his wife Bettianne 50 years ago this season, made Elwood a signature role; in fact, this is the first time someone else has played the genial Mr. Dowd on the CCCT stage. Tom Reardon essays this plum role in his own comic fashion, quite differently. Where Jimmy Stewart, for example, was laid back, a little absent-minded but knowing, Reardon is bright-eyed, eager to please, a little manic. Together with the others in the cast, he brings in a funny show. 

Elwood’s cockeyed charm leaves his socially-minded sister Veta (Maureen-Theresa Williams) and aggressive niece Myrtle Mae (Liz Caffrey) cool, if not cold. Elwood inherited the family estate, in and on which the distaff side lives, from his and Veta’s mother (“I suppose because she died in his arms; people get sentimental about things like that!”), and this crimped mother-daughter act resents their dependence—on Elwood, and Harvey as well. 

So they decide to stuff their friendly benefactor in the booby hatch—Chumley’s Rest, named after its psychiatrist founder (Ken Ray as William R. Chumley, M. D.)—with the help of old family retainer, Judge Omar Gaffney (Phil Reed). 

But as that truly wise, somewhat misanthropic humorist James Thurber advised, “Don’t count your boobies before they’re hatched.” Much of the fun of the plot lies in the comings and goings of Myrtle Mae, Veta, the Judge, Doctors Chumley and Sanderson (Greg Milholland), Nurse Kelly (Liz Olds), Wilson the strong-arm orderly (Billy Raphael), Dr. Chumley’s charming wife Betty (Merle Nadlin, who in one short scene with Elwood in the moderne waiting room of the sanitarium—nicely designed by Matt Flynn, complete with framed Rorschach Tests—shows as fine a grasp of the tone of Harvey as anyone has in the cast), and cabbie E. J. Lofgren (Chris Harper)—who philosophizes that those he drives to the sanitarium are a happier (and better-tipping) bunch than those he brings back—all in pursuit of Elwood, or in flight of each other, while Mr. Dowd obliviously continues his constant round of socializing, befriending strangers, and doing anybody a favor who will accept it as such. 

There’s lots of good physical comedy (Olds seems particularly adept; Raphael and Caffrey make a funny team) and old-fashioned farcical chases and door-slamming—some of it by a big, invisible entity who, well, seems to grow on everyone. In fact, Dr. Chumley himself imbibes both libations and a few drams of nonpsychological truth in an evening out on the town with the boys. The old boy and the rabbit, that is. 

Harvey is of that line of comedies about American families composed of eccentrics, maybe most famously You Can’t Take It With You and other old chestnuts like Arsenic and Old Lace, as well as some others that also serve up a little hocus-pocus in the brew, like Bell, Book, and Candle. All seemed deliberately a little old-fashioned when they premiered, because all were intended to be gentle reminders of small-town virtues—friendliness, an easy-going demeanor, and the ability to pause for a few—or more than a few—moments to no practical end—which serve as antidote to that virulent other American practice of masquerading as success, social standing, professionalism and The Greater Good. The latter having cracked the whip on and stabbed many a back ever since Plymouth Rock landed on those poor Pilgrims, who were just trying to get away ... 

Harvey—and the best of those others like it—not only reminds but serves as a refresher course in kindness through laughter. The cast, under the direction of Kathleen Ray, the Flynn’s daughter, plays it for laughs. And the play’s chock-full of great, silly old vaudeville and burlesque ticklers—like when any particular, scheming doctor or half-threatening functionary asks that archetypal male ingenue Elwood, “Is there something I can do for you?” And he uncannily replies, “What do you have in mind?” 



8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 11 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito. $18; $11 age 16 and under. 524-9132.