The Milwaukee Repertory Theater has been home to a variety of brilliant stories told by the performances of equally brilliant actors. The most popular of these shows is of course A Christmas Carol, a timeless tale that has become a holiday tradition for many Milwaukee theater goers. But the Rep is getting another early Christmas present, a present of a play about a man and his six foot tall white rabbit friend.
Harvey was first performed on Broadway in 1944 and made famous by the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. It tells the tale of Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible rabbit friend Harvey. But after his behavior with his friend causes embarrassment for his sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her daughter one time too many, she attempts to have him committed to a sanitarium known as Chumley’s Rest, headed by Dr. William R. Chumley. What follows is a set of hijinks as the Dowd family has trouble separating Harvey from Elwood. And as it turns out, Harvey might be more real than we realize.
The Rep has always been known for its superb actors, and this show is no exception. Everyone played their roles exceptionally, but the highlight was of course the main characters. Jonathan Gillard Daly (a Rep Associate Artist who played Elwood) has a contagious warmth about him as he makes his imaginary partner almost appear to be real. Yet he conveys a hint of sadness to his character to drive hom the play’s themes. Deborah Staples (another Rep Associate Artist who played Veta) genuinely cares for Elwood and his well-being but is in constant conflict with what the rest of her friends think of Elwood and Harvey. She’s also appropriately and humorously exasperated after being mistakenly committed at the sanitarium. James Pickering (another Rep Associate Artist who played Dr. Chumley) is as professional and orderly as the facility he runs, which makes his exasperation at Elwood and Harvey all the more impactful and hilarious.
It wouldn’t be a play at the Rep without a gorgeous set. The stage on the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater consists of two areas for the two key settings in the play, the Dowd house and Chumley’s Rest. The wood paneling, masses of books, and dark yellow lighting give the Dowd house a warmth not out of place for a Victorian style home. And the art deco style of Chumley’s Rest accentuates the clean and modern style of both the environment and the people who run it. The two sets are placed on a “double-donut” revolving set in which the entire stage rotates when a scene in one half of the stage finishes. This allows for scenes to transition without the need of time costly scene changes and even allows for actions at the end of scenes to continue. A lot of time and care went to every detail in the set; the Dowd house features computer-cut gingerbread trim and Chumley’s Rest features hand-painted marble flooring. The stage is also equipped with some stage magic to depict Harvey, but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself.
Being a comedy, the play is filled with much slapstick and spoken gags. But make no mistake, for behind this innocent façade hides a very deep and at times dark narrative. Through Elwood and his friend, Harvey, the play explores the main theme of the play; what it means to be normal and what would happen if we sacrificed what made us different. The harshness of psychiatric care at the time of the play, where shock therapy was the norm, is also explored but serves as more of an invigorating background to the main theme; what happens as science gets better and better at making us perfect? The play even goes briefly into gender roles at the time when Veta recounts her accidental commitment and the way they stripped off her clothes for the sanitarium’s hydrotherapy. But despite these dark themes, the comedy and general fun and silly atmosphere still takes center stage. The more fun than funny humor is mature enough to become a vehicle which we use to better understand and challenge these themes.
I never imagined how anyone could make a compelling narrative about a man with an imaginary giant white rabbit. Yet this play does exactly that, conveying thought-provoking themes while still providing a warm holiday comedy. The all-star cast, beautiful set, and timeless writing all come together in one thoroughly enjoyable package perfect for placing under the tree.
The show is currently running until Dec. 21. Check out the show’s page for more information on show times and tickets.
Photo Credit: milwaukeerep.com