Mary Chase's Harvey, which opens the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's new season, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945. That fact may speak largely to how the Pulitzer jury's tastes have changed over the last 70 years or so.
Then again, it's also arguable that sentiment speaks to some cynicism on my part - and make no mistake about it, the unabashedly sweet play is a litmus test for the audience member's level of cynicism.
Comedy tends to age more poorly than drama, and Harvey certainly shows its age in spots. Scenes in the 150-minute play run considerably longer than is typical for contemporary pieces, there are extraneous characters (something no sane playwright would suggest to budget-conscious modern theatres), there's a final scene deus ex machina in the form of a wise cab driver, and then there's all that casual sexism.
At the same time, the heart of what might have made Harvey a great play in its time, and still makes it a good play, shines through - a sense of innocence and wonder and goodness that feels old-fashioned, but nonetheless vital to an audience in 2013.
The play is the story of Elwood P. Dowd (Mark Crawford), a monied gentleman of leisure who exudes good manners, kindness, and folksy likeability. (“You've got the wrong number,” he tells a caller as he's introduced to us. “But how are ya anyway?”) He also happens to have a best friend named Harvey, who is a pooka - a mischievous spirit who takes the form of a six foot-tall rabbit that only Elwood can see (for the most part). Elwood's mortified family struggles first to hide him, and later to have him committed - and ultimately “cured” of his “delusion.”
The trouble is, Elwood does no harm to anyone. To the contrary, with Harvey in tow, he leaves a trail of utter decency in his wake. And so the central question of the play arises. Who is more mad - the man who befriends an invisible rabbit and enriches the world, or those who would make us all the same - and more miserable in the process?
For the not-insignificant philosophical questions it raises, Harvey is, foremost, a comedy. And director Ann Hodges' production draws lots of warm chuckles, if not consistent hilarity. Her cast of a dozen - fronted by a gentlemanly and charming Crawford - all acquit themselves well. There's solid work throughout the supporting cast, including Catherine Fitch as Elwood's prim sister Veta; Alissa Watson, making an impressive MTC debut as Veta's boy-crazy daughter Myrtle Mae; and Jeremy Walmsley as the outrageously pompous psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson.
At the same time, it feels like there's an occasionally inconsistent approach to the comedy here - is it big, bold, screwball comedy, or is it going for something more subtle? The comedic approach feels sometimes uneven - and so, too, are the laughs.
Consistently impressive, though, is a set by Brian Perchaluk. He's designed many very fine sets for RMTC, but this is undoubtedly one of his very best. Making smart use of the John Hirsch Theatre's rotating stage platforms, Perchaluk is able to completely transform the stage from one striking location to another - and, in the process of changing those sets, offer a strikingly beautiful tableau of a street scene.
So will you enjoy this production of Harvey? It may all come down to a dichotomy Elwood suggests late in the play, recalling something he was told by his mother - “In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years, I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
If you're willing to put aside smart - or cynical, call it what you will - and opt for “pleasant,” it's impossible not to be drawn in by Harvey's sweet and charming nature.