How invisible can a rabbit more than 6 feet tall really be? In Mary Chase’s play “Harvey,” it depends on where you stand with him at the intersection of love, acceptance, magic and imagination.
Playwright and journalist Chase grew up in a family of storytellers, including uncles who shared tales from their Irish heritage of the pooka, a spirit that can take animal form.
Desdemona Chiang, who’s directing Heritage Theatre Festival’s new production of “Harvey,” points to “a combination of what you’re willing to see and what he’s willing to show.”
In the play, only Elwood P. Dowd can see Harvey, and he’s amazed that others can’t. Your enjoyment of the comedy doesn’t depend on your willingness to believe in anything you can’t see, but it’s fun to take a break from life’s small screens and stressors to explore the interplay of presence and perception.
“There are hints that Harvey is a pooka who will push you when you need to be pushed. He has to make himself available to you” for you to be able to see him, Chiang said.
When “Harvey” opens July 6 in the University of Virginia’s Ruth Caplin Theatre — the preview performance already has sold out — audience members have a chance to step away from the iconic film version starring James Stewart and discover the play for themselves.
The director’s with you there. When Jenny Wales, Heritage’s artistic director, asked Chiang if she’d direct “Harvey” for Heritage, “I only knew it as the film,” Chiang said. “The guy with the rabbit friend. That was my only context for it.”
But once she took a closer look at the script, deeper qualities came into view.
“I was struck by how poignant it is,” Chang said. “There’s something profound about it.”
What can seem like a light-hearted comedy on the surface has layers of meaning that helped bring Chase the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Ever since, the play has been resonating with audience members in different ways.
When it opened in November 1944 at Broadway’s 48th Street Theatre, it offered war-weary patrons an evening’s break from worry and loss. Chase received letters from audience members who said they’d laughed for the first time since losing a loved one in the war.
“Our flavor of comedy has changed over the past sixty or seventy years, but there are still things in it we find funny,” the director said.
Seeds of the postwar culture to come also can be seen; characters look forward both to a return to normalcy in the form of social events and eventual weddings and to progress through transformative medical advances and solved problems.
Some lines in the script offer reminders that the nation has come a long way in terms of dealing with alcoholism and mental illness and with stigmas that can haunt patients’ families — and that there’s much work yet to be done. Others prompt thought about how we accept the people in our lives who can be hard to understand. And a large slice of the plot shows how opportunities have changed for women; most young women today assume they’ll be supporting themselves or sharing financial responsibilities with a love match of a spouse.
The cast includes Bryan Close as Elwood, Julia Brothers as Veta Louise Simmons, UVa faculty member Cady Garey as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet/Betty Chumley, Christine Mirzayan as nurse Ruth Kelly, Nathaniel Kent as Duane Wilson/E.J. Lofgren, Kevin Minor as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, Payton Moledor as Myrtle May Simmons, Dan Stern as Dr. William Chumley and James Scales as Judge Omar Gaffney.
Veta, Elwood’s sister, is embarrassed by his eccentric behavior and worries that it might chase away the kind of upper-crust suitors she seeks for her daughter, Myrtle. Her attempt to get him committed to a sanitarium ends up backfiring in a series of comic complications — and a realization that the loving and gentle Elwood she knows could disappear forever in the midst of the era’s aggressive medical treatments.
“Veta’s trying to hold onto a level of social status that’s slipping away from her,” Chiang said. Finding herself in a less-than-comfortable position in life, Veta’s trying to secure a financially stable future for her daughter.
“In order for [Myrtle] to be successful in life, she had to be able to run with a certain crowd,” Chiang said. “One thing we don’t get a lot of in the play is the Dowds are in a financial pickle. It’s Elwood’s house, not Veta’s.”
The war years were traumatic for service members and civilians alike. Chiang said the play had special resonance for World War II-era families dealing with the stress of losing loved ones in the war — and of being reunited with others who came home forever changed by their experiences.
“Families would send their boys away, and they wouldn’t come back,” she said. “There was this profound loss happening.
“How do you cope with distress in your time and your social circle? What do we do with folks who just aren’t ‘normal?’”
The power of live theater to console and redirect hops into this turmoil almost invisibly. “Harvey” offers viewers the choice to accept whatever levels of comfort or suspension of disbelief work for them.
“ ‘Harvey’ is about how we cope with life,” Chiang said. Instead of advocating escapism per se, it encourages “being able to let go of how we think the world is supposed to function.”