A midsummer performance of “Harvey” by the Tellico Community Players turned out to be everything the audience could have expected.
Thanks to great acting and creative directing by Courtney Woolard, the question of whether the play that won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945 and later became a classic Hollywood movie is a drama or a comedy was decided by the continuous sounds of laughter coming from the audience Thursday.
“We had a lot of fun preparing for this play,” Woolard said.
The story is about Elwood P. Dowd, who has an invisible friend named Harvey. Elwood is a pillar of the community, well spoken and polite. Whether or not Elwood is crazy is up to the audience to decide.
The lead roles were performed brilliantly by Bailey Dufty as Dowd and Jodi Moody as his sister, Veta Louise.
Dufty said previously he was trying hard not to play Jimmy Stewart, who starred in the film. Dufty succeeded in creating his own unique interpretation of the role. His soft voice and pleasant manners fit the character perfectly, not unlike Stewart’s.
His much more powerful physical presence, however, dominated the stage in a way the slender, self-effacing Stewart did not.
When it comes to dominating the stage, Moody was certainly the most exciting and entertaining of the players. She switched quickly and almost effortlessly between bouts of grief and comic hysteria, adding bits of physical comedy to the scenes. The mere discussion of her antics by other characters generated lots of laughs even when she was not on stage.
Veta becomes so consumed with her concern about the family reputation that it causes her to forget about what is really important. Elwood, on the other hand, is grounded, despite his tendency to believe in things that might or might not be real. When Veta tries to get Elwood committed to an asylum, she finds herself locked up.
In homage to Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1950 movie, Moody took the role and ran with it, sometimes shrieking like a banshee to the delight of all in attendance.
Speaking of banshees, Harvey, a six-foot invisible rabbit, was revealed as an ancient Celtic creature called a Pooka. Playwright Mary Chase was influenced by her mother’s Irish heritage when she created the character.
The actors played up to their invisible co-star as if he was actually standing in the room. Sound and visual effects, coupled with the audience’s imagination, worked to make the character almost as real as the other players.
The magnificent performance of the lead characters is the reason this play was the best production by TCP this year. While it might be possible to describe the play without mentioning the more than a half-dozen supporting actors, it would be unfair not to acknowledge their contribution. Woolard’s attention to detail gave every single supporting character something important in the performance.
Eric Collins, who plays the sometimes sinister and often bungling asylum orderly and psychiatric henchman Duane Wilson, is possibly the best supporting actor in the cast. He alternates between the kind of character you might hate and one you might feel sorry for as he stalks around the stage with a maniacal grin.
Nurse Kelly, played by Meg Cochran, doesn’t get a lot of serious lines, but she delivers quips and asides that show she’s more than just a pretty face. She maintains a sort of love-hate relationship with her boss, Dr. Lyman Sanderson, played by Todd Smith. Smith might be secretly smitten by his nurse but he is too consumed with his role as a part of the medical establishment to let her know.
Sara Grace Peglow’s performance as Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae includes some funny lines she delivers with perfect comic timing.
Even the smallest roles add something important to the performance.
An astute observation is rendered by the cab driver at the end of the play when she points out how patients go into treatment happy and come out something less than they were when they went in. She observes patients often come out like normal people, “and you know what bastards they are.”
A lot of the humorous subtext was obviously influenced by the skepticism in which mid-20th century psychology and the treatment of the mentally ill was viewed by many at the time. The play makes a soft mockery of the idea some people are crazy just because people with medical diplomas declare they are crazy.
In fact, the people trying to get Elwood committed, including the psychologists, his siblings and even a judge, are arguably crazier than he when viewed from the audience perspective. If the Forrest Gump lexicon were used, he’d probably sum up the situation with “crazy is as crazy does.”
Harvey will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Tellico Community Playhouse. Tickets are still available.