HARVEY (Walnut): Burns slow, then hops right along

Ben Dibble in HARVEY. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Ben Dibble in HARVEY. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Despite not being the namesake character, Elwood P. Dowd is the driving force of Mary Chase’s HARVEY, now showing at Walnut Street Theatre.

Considering the namesake character is an invisible rabbit and has no lines, it couldn’t be any other way. We only “see,” hear from, and experience Harvey through Elwood’s interactions. With an innocent charm worthy of his predecessor James Stewart, who played Elwood in the 1950 film of the same title, Ben Dibble is perfect in the role.

If we could all live at Elwood’s pace, our lives would be a little sweeter. If the rest of the play moved at his pace, it would be better for it as well.

Instead, the play has a bit of a Goldilocks dynamic with the pacing. At times, it is all a frantic jumble of activity. Other times is it a slow burn to a mediocre punch line.  Running almost two and a half hours when you include the 20-minute intermission, for some it may be too long to spend in the somewhat-cramped seats of the Walnut Street Theatre.

Whenever Dibble is on stage, however, it seems to be just right.

It is his pure wonder and kindness that sets the tone for the play. Despite being the only one who sees and converses with an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit, he is the voice of reason in a cast that is alternately consumed by high society and academia. He is the bed that is not too hard and not too soft. He is the porridge that is just the right temperature.

The audience watches as the story bounces between the family members (Mary Martello plays Dowd’s concerned sister Veta Louise Simmons with Ellie Mooney as Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae) who worry that Elwood is ruining their chance at becoming proper socialites, and the staff of a sanitarium (Greg Wood, Ian Merrill Peakes, and Lauren Sowa) who are fascinated by the so-called hallucinations Elwood is having. And then Elwood steps in and everything is suddenly better.

The world could use more whimsy, we learn, less rules. Maybe Elwood is the sanest one of all, playwright Mary Chase seems to suggest.

It’s a story that seems a little dated—a little too pure of heart at times, too—but that is part of its charm. The scenes unfold before beautifully designed, elaborate sets (Robert Koharchik), and the costumes (Mark Mariani) are crisp and eye-catching. Taking in HARVEY is like watching a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa.] January 19- March 6, 2016. walnutstreettheatre.org


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