THEATER REVIEW: Walnut’s ‘Harvey’ is start to end funny

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Many years ago, I saw “Harvey” on stage … and was bored. Maybe it was the cast, maybe it was the direction, but when I recently saw the show at Walnut Street Theatre, boredom was the furthest thing from my mind. A dynamic cast (led by Ben Dibble and Mary Martello) and great direction by Bob Carlton gave a new life to an old show.
“Harvey” was written by Mary Chase in 1944 and debuted on Broadway on Nov. 1, 1944. The story focuses on socialites Veta Simmons (Martello), her daughter Myrtle Mae (well played by Ellie Mooney) and Veta’s possibly disturbed brother, Elwood (Dibble). After Veta’s and Elwood’s mother died, Veta and Myrtle Mae moved in with Elwood. It wasn’t long before Veta noticed a significant change in her brother – Elwood developed an “imaginary” friend named Harvey. Harvey, however, wasn’t just any imaginary friend. According to Elwood, Harvey was a pooka.

Ben Dibble as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey at Walnut Street Theater.  Photo by Mark Garvin

Ben Dibble as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey
at Walnut Street Theater.
Photo by Mark Garvin

Pookas, from Irish folklore, are shape shifters that could take the form of various animals. They could bring either good or bad fortune. In Elwood’s case, the pooka took the form of a six foot tall rabbit who only appeared to people he liked, such as Elwood and, although she was loathe to admit it, occasionally Veta. Elwood met Harvey leaning on a lamppost and Elwood’s life changed. Instead of the stuffy, work minded man he was, Elwood became a kind, free spirit who spent his time in pubs, trying to bring goodwill to those around him.

What: “Harvey”
Where: runs at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia
When: Now through March 6. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Info.: Tickets are $20-$85. For a list of show times or for more information, call 215-574-3550 or 1-800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster.

Elwood insists on introducing his friend to everyone he meets, much to the chagrin of Veta and Myrtle Mae. Things come to a head when Elwood and Harvey crash an upscale party Veta is throwing in the hopes of introducing her daughter to society. Fed up with Elwood’s seemingly bizarre behavior, Veta makes the difficult decision to have Elwood committed. But at the sanitarium, a hilarious mix up with handsome yet arrogant doctor Sanderson (great performance by Ian Merrill Peakes) leaves Elwood free and Veta committed.
Walnut’s production is funny from before the curtain goes up, until the final bow. Before the action even starts on stage, Dibble is scrambling through the audience, looking for Harvey and handing out Elwood’s business cards. Dibble is terrific in dramatic works, but he really shines in comedies. He has a natural affability that makes Elwood very likable and charming. Martello is a great match for him. She, too, is wonderful comedic actress. The scene where Veta is committed is particularly funny, especially when Dan Olmstead’s body guard like sanitarium worker, Wilson, “retrieves” her from the grounds.
Other notable performances include Lauren Sowa as Nurse Kelly, Susan Riley Stevens as Betty Chumley, H. Michael Walls as Judge Gaffney and Fran Prisco as EJ Lofgren. Greg Wood is marvelous as Dr. Chumley. The cast works terrifically together. Their reactions to Harvey, along with some special effects, make it believable … I could almost see the elusive rabbit myself. Nothing felt forced or contrived.
“Harvey” takes place on a breath taking set, designed by Robert Koharchik. Both the Dowd mansion and Chumley’s rest are luxurious, lavish and detailed. Mark Mariani’s costumes are perfect for both the time period and the piece.

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