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Friday, September 29, 2023


‘Harvey’ brings laughs, awakens sense of awe

James Black plays Elwood P. Dowd, the uncle whose relationship to his friend Harvey, an imaginary rabbit, creates laughter and wonder for audience members in the Alley Theatre’s production of "Harvey." | Courtesy of Alley Theatre

Endless strip malls, horrible traffic, mediocre sports teams — if those are some of the first things that come to mind when you think of Houston, chances are you’ve never taken in a play at the Alley Theater.

Because when I think of Houston, I think great theater. And if you’re among those who have never been to the Alley, you owe it to yourself to go see their new play, Harvey — it’s fantastic.

Harvey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, tells the story of the Dowds: mother Veta Louise, daughter Myrtle and uncle Elwood. And then there’s Harvey. For Elwood, Harvey is a best friend and constant companion. But for the rest of the Dowds, the fact that Harvey also happens to be a 6-foot tall invisible rabbit, is a source of constant embarrassment.

You read that right — the title character of this play is a 6-foot tall invisible rabbit, a figment of uncle Elwood’s imagination. Or is he?

The play opens in the library of the Elwood’s mansion, and we’re introduced to Veta, played by the commanding Kristine Nielsen, and Myrtle, performed by the versatile Elizabeth Bunch. The two are anxious that the party they are throwing will go off without a hitch and that Myrtle will make a fine impression on the local upper crust. Think of a 1950s-era sweet 16.

Their anxiety is heightened by the worry that feeble old uncle Elwood will crash their party and introduce everyone to his imaginary friend.

Which is, of course, what happens.

The audience is treated to one hilariously hysterical monologue after another, as mother and daughter see not so much their standing in society but their very identity as upstanding society women threatened by their senile uncle and his imaginary rabbit friend Harvey.

It’s enough for them to want to have him committed. And that’s just what they decide to do. But at Chumley’s Rest, a sanitarium that comically captures that former era’s smug assurance of the clear distinction between the sane and the insane, we begin to get the idea that there is some almost magical force protecting Elwood from harm. Or maybe it’s just the sexism of the times.

Because, as Veta describes with nerves fraught like wires over her brother’s condition, the over-exuberant doctor decides that she must be the one in need of care. Elwood, helped in large part by the simple fact that he is a man (but is there something else protecting him?), is assumed to be the sane one, and his sister, contrary to the scheme she had cooked up, is committed in his place.

This play does a marvelous job of capturing the stereotypes of a bygone era. We have the frivolous society woman, frantic to increase her standing in her circle, and we have the myopic psychiatrist, unable to see past his own sense of superiority into the heart of matters.

Uncle Elwood, on the other hand, breaks from the stereotype of the effectual leading man — his simplemindedness may seem like wisdom, but then again he could just have a few screws loose.

But as the action ratchets up, the doctor’s mistake becomes clear, and the family and sanitarium staff begin their frenetic search for this wayward man. The carefully crafted fiction of these stereotypes begins to be undermined by, most surprisingly, the truth Harvey represents.

Is he a creation of Elwood’s mind, a sign of his deteriorating mental condition? Or is he actually what Elwood calls him, a Pooka, a friendly spirit from Celtic mythology?

This play — performed with a competency and subtlety worthy of Broadway — explores the value of a sense of joy and wonder society might well deem mad.

And as the play moves you from aligning with society to aligning with Elwood, you begin to feel that sense of joy and wonder awakening in yourself. It is an experience not to be missed.

The play runs through May 9, and students can buy heavily discounted tickets through the Alley Web site by using the promotional code “student.”

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