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On Theater: ‘Harvey’ hardly looks his age in Laguna

The last time we “saw” Harvey, the title character of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy from 1943, at the Laguna Playhouse, he was accompanied by Charles Durning, the since-departed actor who churned up laughs in movies like “Tootsie” and “To Be or Not to Be.”

Well, the invisible big bunny’s back in Laguna, this time making life interesting for French Stewart and his offstage wife Vanessa Claire Stewart, who headline this vintage story with an illustrious supporting cast, all of whom generate more laughs than a 76-year-old play has any right to expect.

There’s little “new” about Laguna’s “Harvey,” but these inspired players put a comedic shine on Chase’s well-worn dialogue under the spirited direction of Andrew Barnicle, who served as the playhouse’s artistic director from 1991-2010.

French Stewart seems to have been born to play Elwood P. Dowd, the eccentric, tippling and ever-polite fellow who pals around with the invisible six-foot rabbit. As he fairly hops about the stage turning strangers into friends, he’s reminiscent of another Stewart, Jimmy, who headlined the play’s movie version.

As his harried sister Veta Louise, Vanessa French Stewart creates a dominant figure who’s still no match for her brother’s imaginary buddy. Her reactions upon being committed to the mental institution instead of Elwood are priceless.

A standout in the supporting cast is Lily Gibson as the chirping, flirtatious Myrtle Mae, Veta’s somewhat goofy daughter, She’s a real hoot as she tries out her charms on Duane Wilson (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), appropriately strong as the “muscle” of the local sanitarium.

Gregory North enacts the hospital’s head shrink, Dr. Chumley, with an exaggerated sense of authority, which dissolves as he falls under Harvey’s spell. His vacuous wife is well played by Teresa Ganzel, whom playgoers may remember from TV’s old days as Johnny Carson's sidekick.

Romance develops, quite clumsily, between another doctor at the sanitarium (Nick Gabriel) and the office nurse (Roxane Hayward), who strive to squelch their obvious mutual attraction. Both amplify their seemingly “straight” assignments.

Larry Cedar projects officious judicial bluster as the family attorney and Tom Shelton excels as E.J. Lofgren, a taxi driver who unwittingly ties up the plot’s loose ends.

The presence of Carole Ita White, in an early cameo as a society matron, links this production to its original version. Her father, the late Jesse White, played Wilson for four years on Broadway and reprised the role on the screen.

Bruce Goodrich’s expansive set design nicely encompasses both the home and sanitarium on the vast playhouse stage. Costumes by Kate Bergh are fitting since the play is now set in the present, though a rotary dial phone with a cordless receiver does seem a bit strange.

As for the play itself, familiarity breeds contentment. I’ve played both Chumley and Lofgren and watched my daughter enact Nurse Kelly, and still found myself chuckling audibly at lines virtually committed to memory.