Peter Krantz as Elwood P. Dowd and Diana Donnelly as Nurse Kelly
Peter Krantz as Elwood P. Dowd and Diana Donnelly as Nurse Kelly

Written by Mary Chase
Directed by Jospeh Ziegler
Performed by Peter Krantz, Mary Haney, Norman Browning et al
Shaw Festival Production
Royal George Theatre
April 1 to October 31, 2010.  HELD OVER TO NOVEMBER 14
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Genteel Ways, Giant Rabbit

The story of Harvey and his endearing companion, Elwood P. Dowd, hit Hollywood’s big screens 60 years ago.  The movie version is based on a play by Mary Chase, which she wrote and rewrote in the 1940s.   Fortunately, the whimsical story has withstood the test of time, and continues to charm audiences 70 years later.  It opened Saturday at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Since the world knows Harvey through James Stewart’s portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd in the 1950 movie, Shaw actor Peter Krantz allows us to hold on to that image.  He plays Dowd much like Stewart’s version, in a similar soft-spoken, sometimes whistling voice.  This seems to work well – and while he gives us Stewart’s style, he is not just an impersonator; he makes the character his own.

Dowd is unfailingly polite, always pleasant with impeccable manners.  He is someone everyone would like.  His only failing is that he spends much of his time talking to his companion, a six foot invisible white rabbit named Harvey who is a pooka.  A pooka is a mythical ghost who can take animal form and offers humans friendly advice and assistance.

Dowd’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons, is very embarrassed about her brother’s penchant for introducing the invisible rabbit to everyone he meets.  She has high hopes of her daughter Myrtle Mae meeting the right young man to improve their social standing.  Mary Haney plays Veta Louise with excellent comedic timing.  Her distress makes for much of the laughter in the play.

Also creating much of the humour are the two doctors in the show.  Gary Powell plays the earnest young Dr. Sanderson who is trying so hard to do the right thing, while Norman Browning plays the older Dr. Chumley who later succumbs to Harvey’s spell.  Both actors handle their roles well and remain understated for maximum humour.

Donna Belleville handled both roles of older woman at the opening.  She plays Mrs. Chauvenet, the gossipy visitor, and also Mrs. Chumley, the doctor’s wife.  Both characters are delightful, and as foils for Elwood, show how charming he is.

The set for Harvey is incredible.  A stately library in the Dowd family mansion with luxurious heavy Victorian furniture, and classic Persian rugs takes us back to the days of old money in the 1940s.  But when the action shifts to the sterile insane asylum lobby, the set transforms. Backdrops come down, while white-coated hospital workers carry off furniture and flip around walls.  During the opening performance the stage workers were applauded for the quick transformation of the two amazing sets.

Of course, the audience never actually sees Harvey. However, we can rest assured that the giant white rabbit actually exists.  When we see doors opening and closing we know that Harvey as onstage.

It’s a very heart-warming story, one of those comedies where you leave the theatre feeling good.  It has endured and remains uplifting, still funny decades after it was first written.  The Shaw’s version is good entertainment.

Harvey continues at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake, until October 31.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-511-7429 or check www.shawfest.com


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