Even if you have never seen “Harvey,” it won’t be spoiling the kick-off production of Hampton Theatre Company’s 30th season to tell you that Harvey is a six-foot, one-and-a-half-inch tall white rabbit whom few can see.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning classic comedy by Mary Chase ran on Broadway between 1944 and 1949, before it was made into a movie iconically starring Jimmy Stewart in 1950. It’s a perfect choice for a company that excels at plays that probe the human psyche.
The play follows a family that aspires to high society in the “Far West” of the United States in the 1940s. While Elwood P. Dowd, a drunkard with excellent manners followed by a cloud of good will, takes his invisible rabbit buddy with him everywhere, his sister and niece, Veta Louise Simmons and Myrtle Mae Simmons, believe Harvey is ruining their social standing.
They try to have Elwood committed, but Veta, near hysterical over the rabbit, ends up inadvertently convincing a young psychiatrist that she is the one who is mad, setting off a harrowing sequence of events that has even some of the asylum’s staff convinced that Harvey is real.
This production, directed by Diana Marbury, who directed HTC’s spring production of “God of Carnage,” does this excellent material justice.
Matthew Conlon, who appeared as the lead in the spring production of “The Foreigner,” takes on a similar role as the naifish Elwood, who, despite his drinking and his rabbit, provides everyone from the director of the asylum to his plotting sister with spot-on insights into human nature. His indifference to the insanity that surrounds him has an innocence that matches his alcohol-induced glow.
He knows Harvey is a “pooka,” a mythical creature in Irish folklore who can bring good or bad fortune, but he accepts his pooka companion just as well as any other drinking companion.
Pamela Kern is wonderful as Veta Louise, whose obnoxious phony tittering and highfalutin society accent is brought down to earth when she is manhandled and bathed during her brief, unwilling stay in the asylum.
Women bear the brunt of some bad male behavior in this play, and none more so than nurse Ruth Kelly, played by Krista Kurtzberg, who suffers (and sometimes enjoys) the crude advances of nearly every man in the play. Only Elwood treats her right.
The theme of chauvinism just skirts heavy-handedness, but it’s saved, peculiarly, by the fact that the women in the play aren’t really behaving all that well. In fact, no one is behaving well but Elwood, despite the fact that he spends much of the production downtown wandering from bar to bar while his family and the psychiatrists try to track him down.
Sebastian Marbury does a fine job with the role of the creepy Dr. Lyman Sanderson, who has Ms. Simmons committed instead of her brother and pretends he can’t stand Nurse Kelly while he leers at her backside every time she turns around.
The orderly, Duane Wilson, played with perfect lunkishness by Russell Weisenbacher, also has his eye on Nurse Kelly, but he prefers the young Myrtle Mae Simmons, played by Amanda Griemsmann.
Their boss, Dr. William Chumley, played with gusto by John Kern, is more concerned with the landscapers’ treatment of his prized dahlias than with the care of his patients — until he hears that Ms. Simmons plans to sue him for having her falsely committed.
But when Dr. Chumley sees Harvey, well, things just get a little interesting.
The audience at Saturday’s performance seemed well aware of the storyline — laughing in anticipation of Harvey’s entrances and delighting in this classic theatrical work.
Even the scene changes — which involve two elaborate wall-moving exercises, earned applause from the devoted crowd.
This production is well worth a trip to the theater.
“Harvey” will run through Nov. 9, with shows on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online here.