“Zenned-out” Harvey, now on stage in Toronto, produces mixed results
In Stage Centre Productions’ production of Harvey, director Steven Jackson re-imagines the classic 1940s comedy as a Buddhist text. For me, this change in delivery and pacing makes the madcap comedy dull and unfunny more often than not.
Still, the audience – myself included – did manage to find a few hearty laughs in those parts of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning text that did hit the mark.
For those of you who are as unfamiliar with the play as I was, Harvey is about a woman named Veta Simmonds, who is trying to commit her quirky brother Elwood to a sanatorium because his best friend is an invisible six-foot-one-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit named Harvey. Madness ensues as one of the psychiatrists commits Veta instead of her brother and things get even stranger as other characters start seeing Harvey too.
As-written, the play is an absurd send-up of 1940s attitudes towards both the mentally ill and the field of psychiatry itself, along with inheritance laws and gender norms. As the story becomes less and less believable, its strangeness becomes more and more funny. Because Jackson is trying to make this play about an enlightened reality, that absurd humour is often downplayed, in my opinion to the production’s detriment.
As Jackson says in his director’s notes, he sees Elwood as a “character who embodies the very essence of Buddha: [he] lives purely in the present and lives in harmony with everyone he meets.” Unfortunately, this “zenned out” Elwood loses much of his simple charm because nearly every line is delivered in the same calm, cool tone.
In fact, most of the characters in this production fall a little flat in this pseudo-realistic staging. The love triangle between the young psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson, the nurse Miss Kelly, and the orderly Mr. Wilson seems implausible since these characters seem to hate one another. Instead of flirtatiously fighting, they seem to be genuinely at each other’s throats.
That being said, a few of the staging choices did stand out as excellent. Almost every decision about how to make changes between the scenes played to the humour inherent in Chase’s play. For example, every time we returned to the psychiatrist’s office and Miss Kelly rolled into her desk from the wings on her office chair, the audience roared with laughter. Choosing to set the scene by rotating to different portraits on the upper level of the set was also very clever.
Although I didn’t love Stage Centre Productions’ Harvey, I get why the play is considered such a classic, and can see where the jokes are in the text, even if they don’t always land. If it had been played as a zany, fast-paced comedy, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
- Harvey is playing until May 23 at the Fairview Library Theatre (35 Fairview Mall Drive)
- Shows run Wednesday to Sunday at 8pm, with an additional matinee on Saturdays at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $27.50, with a student/senior price of $22 and are available online, or through the box office at 416-299-5557
Photo of Eden Bachelder, Judy Gans, and Frank Keenan by Fabio Saposnik.