If you thought Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “Harvey” was a bygone relic that couldn’t possibly be fulfilling or substantive in this day and age, check out Wright State University’s excellent production radiating with refreshing depth, vivacity and non-traditional casting.
Director Brian McKnight, returning to WSU for the first time since 2010’s “All My Sons,” particularly doesn’t forget to paint Chase’s sturdy canvas with great poignancy, especially when the utterly charming and entirely enigmatic Elwood P. Dowd (the incredibly delightful Cameron Blankenship) pensively reflects on the peculiar bond he shares with his titular best friend. Of course, it’s important to note the friend in question is a 6-foot-tall invisible white rabbit. Even so, Blankenship’s captivating, meaningful delivery, subtly heightened by Erin Jones’ lighting design, makes you believe every morsel of Elwood’s truth no matter how implausible. When Elwood talks about his ability to turn strangers into friends whenever Harvey is by his side, even when those connections are short-lived due to what he believes is envy, it automatically tugs the heart. The question of sanity is certainly a prime target of discussion and laughs throughout, but McKnight, staging scenes very well on Michael Amico’s striking double sets, astutely knows that understanding Elwood’s odd behavior and motives, seemingly born out of grief and maintained by the constant need for alcohol, also plays a significant part, especially in the engrossing, darker Act 2.
The bouncing, smiling, carefree Blankenship, short in stature but enormous in spirit, is supported by a terrific, lively ensemble attractively clothed in period attire by D. Bartlett Blair. Taylor Montgomery, a vibrant, physical comedienne, is wonderfully befuddled and exasperated as Veta Louise Simmons, Elwood’s society-driven sister who is so infuriated with Harvey that she checks Elwood into Chumley’s Rest Sanitarium. Montgomery notably provides a hilarious entrance near the top of Act 2 followed by a similarly amusing interpretation of Veta’s traumatic experience of having been mistakenly admitted to the sanitarium. Still, her finest moment occurs with a credible, touching conversion toward the end of Act 2 in the play’s key scene that finds Veta clearly comprehending the magnitude of a world without Elwood’s genial essence. The lovely, perky Renika Williams is firm and funny as Myrtle Mae Simmons, Elwood’s agitated niece who specifically finds her mother’s sanitarium incident titillating. Zack Steele, handsome and affable, is a perfect fit for the empathetic yet curious Dr. Lyman Sanderson, the hotshot psychiatrist who wrongly commits Veta and ushers in the play’s chaos. Jim Miller is authoritative and pleasingly goofy as Dr. William Chumley. Anita Hill is enjoyably forthright as Ruth Kelly, a nurse who pines for Sanderson. Tommy Dimassimo commands attention as Omar Gaffery, a stern judge who is also a portal into Elwood’s sociable existence pre-Harvey. The tall, imposing Stephen Kell is very intimidating as sanitarium worker Duane Wilson, a tough guy unafraid to handle a patient. Katie Post (Miss Johnson), Delee Cooper (Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet), Cassi Mikat (Betty Chumley) and Brandon Kinley (E.J. Lofgren) are equally strong and impactful members of this breezy showcase.
“Harvey” continues through Sept. 29 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glen Hwy, Fairborn. Performances are today at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. Tickets are priced at $22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.