It’s February, so love must be in the air – or at least affection. The Playcrafters Barn Theatre's first production of 2024, director Jake Ladd's Harvey, is a hoot, and a hearty helping of classic comedy.
The play concerns the Simmons family, which includes mother Veta (Chris Hicks), her daughter Myrtle Mae (Kady Derbyshire), and Veta's brother Elwood P. Dowd (Skip Greer). Veta and Myrtle Mae are aspiring socialites who want to be seen and respected by their community. The problem is that Elwood, the owner of the home they reside in, has an invisible best friend who happens to be a six-foot tall-rabbit by the name of Harvey. Elwood insists on introducing everyone he meets to this Harvey and Veta can’t stand the embarrassment. To resolve the situation, she decides to have Elwood committed to a local sanitarium. However, when she’s explaining why Elwood should be admitted, the attending doctor believes she’s the one in need of mental-health services and books her instead. Hijinks ensue as everyone starts running around trying to find out who went where and just who, or what, Harvey really is.
I was already familiar with Mary Chase’s script before opening night: I’d seen the movie, and even performed in my high school’s production of it. I gave a rather terrible rendition of Dr. Sanderson, who is played here by the vastly superior Zach Zelnio. He’s in good company, as Ladd's entire ensemble is wickedly good. Harvey is a door-slamming comedy in the vein of Lend Me a Tenor or Noises Off – and a funny one at that. Comedy ages poorly, yet much of Chase’s writing still works today. There are a couple jokes that are clearly products of their time, but Chase's script largely avoids punching down. The humor is elevated by the wonderful actors, all of whom manage to keep their characters comedic and naturalistic without ever reducing them to caricatures, while the performances are guided by Ladd’s sharp direction, who smartly uses Playcrafters’ expansive thrust to its full extent.
Hicks brings a likable charm to Veta’s neurosis and it’s fun watching her grow increasingly frazzled as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Derbyshire portrays Myrtle Mae as delightfully repressed. The sanitarium staff is comprised of pretentious doctors Sanderson (Zelnio) and Chumley (Don Faust), registered nurse and space cadet Ruth (Kassidy Holdridge), and lab-coat muscle Wilson (Dave Moreland, clearly having a blast). Kendall Burnett and Yvonne Siddique also bring their A-games and high energy to supporting roles as Judge Gaffney and Ethel/Betty, respectively. And Tim Burrow manages to make his taxi driver feel lifelike even though he gets only a couple minutes to do so.
But the heart of the show is Elwood, and Greer’s performance marvelously highlighted an element of the story I had previously overlooked. Every character in Harvey has something they’re urgently trying to get. Every character save Elwood. Whereas everyone else is trying to get somewhere, and is actively in a rush to do so, not him. He’s simply enjoying the moment. None of the other characters can rationalize this, so of course there must be something wrong with him. The large imaginary bunny is incidental – Elwood seems wrong because he’s so comparatively happy. The doctors and denizens of town all have their expectations of what a person should be. Elwood fits none of them, and Greer’s performance is what sold me on the whole production. He’s somehow both aloof and shrewd as well as off-putting and oddly inviting. At first, I didn’t care for his characterization at all. By the end, I had warmed to him tremendously and was sad to see him leave the stage.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gorgeous set design by Ladd that is among the best I’ve ever seen at Playcrafters. The upstage area is dedicated to the Dowd household, full of greens and browns, while the rest of the thrust encompasses the sanitarium, replete with a pristine white glow. The attention to detail is remarkable, and both the set painters, Thayne Lamb and Andrew Derbyshire, and the props masters, Marcia Templeman and Emily Sopatka, deserve huge kudos for their fantastic work. Both areas of the stage look lived-in and go a long way toward selling the realism of Harvey's world. Similarly, the lighting and sound design by Gio Macias helps keep the audience engaged.
There were a few line flubs during Friday's opening-night performance, and a rather unfortunate prop malfunction that interfered with a few punchlines, but the show was strong throughout. Other than some pacing issues that bogged down its two-and-a-half-hour runtime and could probably be attributed to the 80-year-old script, I had very little to complain about.
Beyond a night of heartwarming theatre, it was so refreshing to see Playcrafters so full again. Friday’s performance featured one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen there in years, and my fellow patrons all seemed to be audibly (and loudly) enjoying the show. If you enjoy having fun, Playcrafters’ latest is a hopping good time and not to be missed.
Harvey runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) through February 18, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting Playcrafters.com.