Theater review: ‘Harvey’ at Laguna Playhouse is gentle fun

“I wrote it to make people laugh.” — Mary Chase

Not many comedies land on theater audiences quite like “Harvey.” During Sunday night’s opening performance at the Laguna Playhouse, the full house was in gentle stitches for more than two hours.

These were not the occasional titters that break up periodic silences when a play falls short, nor the explosions of hysterics from an audience being knocked sideways by raucous doings. Instead, somewhere in the middle, there was a sustained response of satisfied enjoyment as this production of “Harvey” arrived like the gentlest set of waves lapping inoffensively, but constantly, on our collective emotional shore.

The source of this intersection where amusement meets bemusement is a 75-year-old play in which an amiable middle-aged man named Elwood P. Dowd encounters an invisible 6-foot-3½ tall rabbit named Harvey leaning against a lamppost. His sister and niece think he’s crazy, attempt to commit him to an asylum and subsequent misunderstandings cause many of the 11 characters to eventually wonder whether seeing an invisible rabbit isn’t such a bad thing after all.

“Harvey” has been this mild and effective entertainment palliative for the past three quarters of a century. Seeking to deliver a message of non-conformity and refuge from the toll of life is what led a former newspaper reporter and Denver mom named Mary Chase to write it in 1944. This was a time when the toll of World War II was hitting home as many husbands, brothers and sons were not returning and something to feel good about was hard to find.

The play, which reportedly took Chase as many as 50 drafts to complete, was a surprise smash on Broadway, running for 4½ years. It was directed by a fellow Denver product named Antoinette Perry (and the namesake for the Tony Awards, to be given out Sunday). It also became a bit infamous, at least in theater circles, for its what-were-they-thinking Pulitzer Prize award in 1945, bafflingly beating “The Glass Menagerie,” Tennessee Williams’ brilliant debut.

What it’s most known for now is the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and for being one of the most performed non-musicals staged by high school drama departments. The Laguna Playhouse has hosted it twice previously, nearly a half century ago in the 1970-71 season and in 2003 when it was directed by TV silly man Charles Nelson Reilly.

“Harvey” itself is silly, but studiously and thoughtfully so. It moves slowly — the first act, frankly, a bit too slowly — but somehow is compelling all the way along. It has the structure of farce, not the doors-slamming-Marx-Brothers-crazy variety, but the sort where the pot slowly simmers until it boils over. Instead of paying off with exhausting giddiness, though, this play turns its last 20 minutes into rumination on what makes life worth living or, failing that, tolerable.

Director Andrew Barnicle, a welcome fixture helming Laguna’s productions, is sensitive to the inner core of the piece. He and his actors get the notes and beats of the comedy right; there is no over-stepping or, worse, over-mugging here.

Husband and wife actors French Stewart and Vanessa Claire Stewart play the leads and both fill the bills.

As Elwood, French Stewart (best known from the TV comedy “3rd Rock from the Sun”) draws our attention by not being overly impish, but restrained and self-contained, thus slowly tuning us to the character’s inner workings. At one point early in the second act, Stewart vaults unexpectedly through a door onto the stage, his burst of physicality perfectly and startlingly revealing the wheels spinning inside this effective performance which is delivered with a tangible glint in his eyes.

Playing Elwood’s sister Veta, Vanessa Claire Stewart unravels at a different pace, fits and starts. Her growing hysterics at the impact Elwood’s behavior is having on her social life land her in an unexpected circumstance and the actress’ early second act disheveled state is not just physically hilarious, but a visual clue to her ultimate change of mind about Elwood’s behavior.

Among the other performances, highlights include Lily Gibson’s screwball-comedienne take on Elwood’s man-crazy niece Myrtle Mae, a winning construct of vocal chirps and facial contortions; Gregory North’s great job in unhinging Dr. Chumley from stuffy and blustery head of the asylum to a mental state perhaps deserving of a stay at his own institution; and Larry Cedar’s fidgety codger as Judge Gaffney, perfectly embodying the last century description of a fussbudget.

The play shifts location between a library in the Dowd home and the front office of the Chumley mental asylum and Bruce Goodrich’s satisfying scenic design captures the homey confine of the former spot — a setting where we have our only sighting of the imagined/real (it’s your choice which one is true) Harvey — and the sterile clutter of the latter in harmony and fusion.

In 1944, a New York Times reviewer decided “Harvey is worth knowing”; we’ll end this review with the same sentiment.