It's been 70 years since Jimmy Stewart played the delightfully delusional Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway production of Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Harvey." Many fictional characters have faded from memory in the intervening years, but Elwood and Harvey linger on.
That may be in part because Stewart immortalized his role in the 1950 film of the same name. But Stewart's charisma aside, there's something about "Harvey" that simply endures, much as Elwood politely but firmly insists on the existence of his invisible friend.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the titular "Harvey" is a 6-foot-tall rabbit seen only by Elwood -- a cheerfully unambitious 30-something fellow with a proclivity for drinking -- and possibly in glimpses by others, including Elwood's stern older sister, Veta. In the Palo Alto Players' production, Veta is played by Mary Price Moore; Evan Michael Schumacher plays Elwood.
These are not simple characters. On the surface, Elwood is the carefree optimist to Veta's ball of jangling nerves. Yet the brother-sister pair won't quite be reduced to the nutty drunk and the tee-totaling prude. As a trip to the local sanatorium proves, Veta packs enough hysteria to get herself accidentally committed, while Elwood's relentless good cheer earns him an almost divine untouchability.
If screw-loose Elwood seems to have been granted immunity from the scourges of life, the "sane" adults all experience pain in one form or another. Veta's histrionic daughter Myrtle Mae (Alison Koch) suffers from an acute case of self-involvement while teetering on the brink of womanhood. Loony bin employees Nurse Ruth (Nicole Martin) and Doctor Sanderson (Scott Solomon) labor under an agonizing level of sexual tension, while the hallowed psychiatrist Doctor Chumley (John Musgrave) undergoes a mental breakdown all his own.
As played by Schumacher, Elwood is nothing but sunshine. Even the monologues Stewart skewed darker (notably: "The same people seldom come back, but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us. It's too bad, isn't it?") are here nothing more than passing clouds on a summer's day.
The result is a production that goes down easy and varies little along the comic register. Under Jeanie Smith's direction, the cast tackles the play's requisite physical comedy with aplomb. Myrtle's eye-rolling, hair-pulling agony and Veta's throat-clutching anxiety are particularly effective, while Schumacher adopts a flat-footed, nose-first waddle, giving Elwood just a twinge of Elmer Fudd. Among the slapstick high points are Veta's rhapsodic monologue about the role of art ("... a fine oil painting shows us our dreams ..."), which she delivers in reference to a prized portrait of her late mother, not realizing it has been replaced by a painting of Elwood with his arm slung around a man-sized bunny in a bow tie.
Lurking just at the edges of this production are the play's tantalizing suggestions of darkness: addiction, insanity, family secrets and the grim business of losing one's childhood innocence. With few shadows to chase, Palo Alto Players' production settles on wholeheartedly Hallmarkian notes: "Practice random acts of kindness," "Best friends never let you down" and, naturally, "Growing up is overrated."
Ron Gasparinetti's impressive modular set allows for quick changes between the family living room (complete with fireplace, built-in bookshelves and gilded busts framing the mantel) and the sanatorium, with its austere admitting room and hospital green hallway.
Costume designer Cynthia Preciado beautifully conjures California society of the mid-1940s, from Elwood's dapper suit and hat to Nurse Ruth's crisp hospital whites and two-pointed nurse's cap.
In the end, it's Mary Price Moore as Veta who has the most crucial role, poised as she is between belief and disbelief in Harvey. Moore achieves a wonderful blend of long-suffering patience and thinly veiled fury at the way this rabbit -- real or not -- disrupts her vision of a sensible life. In the end, the audience is left just a little unsure about Harvey -- might he be real, somehow, after all? -- which is, of course, precisely the intention.
What: Palo Alto Players' "Harvey," by Mary Chase
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Nov. 23; Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets range from $17-$42.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.