Clio Cast & Crew’s “Harvey” Kicks Off 2022!

Reviewed by Sherrema Bower

    Clio Cast & Crew opened their new year Friday with Mary Chase’s comical production of Harvey.  Performed both on Broadway and onscreen (1950) by Jimmy Stewart, it is set in late 1940s – early 1950s America. Elwood P. Dowd (John Dunning) is an eccentric, puerile soul whose best friend is a 6’5” invisible, white rabbit called Harvey. Dowd’s long-suffering sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Judy Harper) lives with him in their childhood home along with Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae (Judie Santo), a debutante. They have however become social outcasts, due to their  brother and uncle introducing the invisible Harvey to everyone he meets. Their waning social status is of supreme concern since Myrtle Mae and her mother have their schemes for securing her a suitable husband. Thus, Dowd’s behavior is inconvenient to the extreme. When he ruins yet one more party – and properly scandalizes the dignified Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet (Pamela Beauchamp) – Veta is fed up and takes him to the local sanitarium to have him committed. She hopes to become the executor of his estate, control the family wealth, and bring back their waning social status. However, Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Noah  Beauchamp) interviews her and decides she is the crazy one, orders Nurse Ruth Kelly (Rebecca Wilhite) to have her institutionalized, and allows Dowd to go free. Once the mistake is realized, via a tipsy Mrs. Chumley (Pamela Beauchamp), Sanderson is fired by presiding psychiatrist Dr. William R. Chumley (William Kircher), and a wild romp ensues to bring Dowd – and Harvey – back. 

    Underlying the madcap humor is tension that keeps the audience engaged in this dramedy where nothing is as it seems. Dunning’s Elwood P. Dowd is unruffled and relaxed, blithely unaware of the stir he causes every time he acknowledges or introduces Harvey. By contrast, Harper’s Veta L. Simmons is disconcerted and thoroughly rattled. After enduring excruciating humiliation, she returns home to Myrtle Mae and the waiting Judge Gaffney, and gives a magnificent performance in theatrics – a blend of righteous indignation and traumatized sensibilities of the ‘well, I never!’ variety. She rises on the edge of hysteria – without fully giving into it – and the effect is humorously superb. 

    Transitions of class and gender bring important themes to this production. At the beginning is a Philadelphia Story/High Society motif; while hostessing a grand party, Mrs. Simmons receives a phone call from the society page editor of the local newspaper, whom she knows by name. A description of Myrtle Mae’s ‘perfectly peach’ dress is included in the write-up. As women of means, their chief concern is seeing and being seen by the right people to perpetuate their wealth. Though she is older than her character, Santo plays Myrtle Mae’s coquetry to the hilt. The women’s gregarious brother and uncle, who is affectionately puzzled by their frustration with him, knows no stranger and recognizes every person as someone of worth. Dowd’s interactions with Nurse Ruth Kelly cause her to compare his decency with Dr. Lyman Sanderson’s studied disregard. 

Wilhite’s nurse is appropriately unflappable and professional while she waits to be noticed by Dr. Sanderson. Beauchamp’s Sanderson is aloof and condescending; in his world, women are ‘hysterical’ and men must ruefully tolerate them. He listens to Veta Simmons’ story with an acute inability – or unwillingness – to explore or hear the subtext. And yet, by contrast his seeming lack of regard for Nurse Kelly is revealed as something else entirely. 

    Dowd projects gentlemanly decency; however, when he returns to the Sanitarium much later in the evening, he brings a seemingly fantastical story about the missing Dr. Chumley and his affable manner takes a sociopathic edge. Orderly Duane Wilson, appropriately played by Rick Doll as malevolent and sometimes creepy, is ready to pummel him. However, Dr. Chumley arrives and suddenly Dowd’s sinister edge melts and he is, once again, merely oblivious, a man who talks to thin air. Pamela Beauchamp gracefully transcends class boundaries when she represents three female characters –  the upperclass Mrs. Chauvenet and Mrs Chumley – the former is haughty and the latter is never without her flask – and the taxicab driver, who brings insight and wisdom to Veta Simmons and helps her make a vitally important decision on behalf of Dowd in the play’s final moments. 

    Themes of faith and spirituality are also present. Mrs. Chauvenet crosses herself when Dowd introduces her to Harvey and in the next sentence, Myrtle Mae expostulates with, “Oh God!” multiple times. Both women call on ‘God’ in their own way. Harvey himself is a pooka, a fairy creature and shapeshifter found in Celtic folklore. The pooka may bring both good and bad fortune to those who believe in its existence, which Veta Simmons comes to understand when, in the end, it appears that Harvey intervenes on her brother’s behalf. Dr. Chumley, it turns out, has dreams of his own that involve a caring and empathetic woman in Akron and Harvey sets out to make them happen. Kircher is excellent in his role as the older psychiatrist, playing him believably and well. Harvey to Dowd is not unlike Drop Dead Fred to Elizabeth Cronin in the film Drop Dead Fred (1991). 

    Kudos to director Jim Waner for managing this comic romp so well. Directing an invisible character brings a tricky bit of talent to bear! The set, lighting, and costume design (Rick Doll, Jake Gayari, Ron Olsey, Robert Doll, Ron Fournier, Dean Norrington, Patrick Hubbard, David Collins, and Dennis Swedorski) worked well together. The set is two halves of a whole – all scenes take place in either the house or the Sanitarium, which split the stage between them. Costuming was appropriately period to the vocations of the characters. Overall, this show will delight with its hilarity and lively explorations of family, personality, and belief. Harvey continues through Feb. 27. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-687-2588 or online at cliocastandcrew.com

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