Harvey is a six-foot-tall, martini-swigging, bow-tie-wearing, bar-hopping rabbit who happens to be Elwood Dowd’s best friend. The only problem is that Harvey is invisible. Unless of course you’ve frequented local Concord bars over the last week, in which case you’ve probably seen quite a bit of Harvey.
The presence of Harvey is the latest promotional wizardry by the Community Players of Concord, who are drumming up interest for their production of Harvey, the 1945 winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The film adaptation of Mary Chase’s play starred Jimmy Stewart as Elwood Dowd, a man on the fringe of society whose best friend and drinking buddy is a gigantic invisible rabbit named Harvey.
Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons, wants to have him committed to a sanatorium, but as the screwball comedy unfolds, the audience learns maybe Elwood Dowd is not the crazy one.
It was the play’s wicked humor that attracted director Gary Locke to the production. It will be his first time working with the Players and he described the experience as “special.”
“I always loved those screwballs of the 1940s,” Locke said. “But they’re not really done anymore except for the classics, like Harvey. Since I got this gig, I have been surprised by how many people have come up to me and said they performed it in high school. There are a lot of memories associated with it, which makes directing it a little daunting.”
Locke said as he worked with the text, he gained a greater appreciation for Mary Chase and her writing.
“There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer,” Locke said.
Chase wrote the script during the war, when human suffering was high, Locke said. Chase had a neighbor who had lost her son and Chase couldn’t help but wonder if the woman would ever laugh again. She decided to write something for her and for everyone who was hurting.
Locke said that need is still very poignant today and the core of the play has a remarkable timelessness. Some of the references, however, needed a bit of updating.
Locke said in one scene a character sniffs a cigar and utters a famous Groucho Marx line. He said only about two people got it. He said these were minor details and the real truth about screwball comedies is that they are about an average person who is perceived as crazy to those who have wealth and status and are supposed to be the sane ones.
It takes some really good acting to portray a person who might or might not be crazy. Both Stewart and Josephine Hall, who played Veta Louise Simmons in the film, were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Acting. Locke knew that Jimmy Stewart was not going to walk through the door on audition day, but he was looking for someone who could be charming, simple and pleasant.
“I wanted someone to surprise me,” Locke said.
Chris Demers did just that. Demers, the assistant principal at the Kimball School in Concord, brought a simple humanity that Locke was looking for in the role. Locke noted one point in the play where Demers has a long monologue — when he finished it the other night at rehearsal, the other actors were so moved they had lost their place in the script.
While the play can touch your heart, it is more likely to cramp your sides from laughter. In the play, Elwood spends a lot of time looking for Harvey and finding him in bars. So Bob Sanders, who does promotions, and Barbara Woodman, a producer, decided to put up missing person — no, missing rabbit — posters around Concord, asking “Where’s Harvey?” Then they had Kevin Belval dress up as Harvey and drink his signature martini with a carrot at local establishments, like the Barley House. In the play and film, Elwood would be by Harvey’s side, but of course Demers was too busy in rehearsal to be lounging around a bar, so they employed the services of Gary Evans, a longtime Player, to fill the role. Since Harvey is supposed to be invisible, if anyone at the bar asked Evans who the rabbit was he would ask them: what rabbit?
“We’re having fun with it,” Sanders said.
Which is exactly what Locke believes people who see the play will experience.
“They are in for an evening that will make them laugh and that will touch them to the core,” Locke said. “All of us involved have a great deal of love for this project.”