Cast, director ably revive classic comic play 'Harvey'

Alan McCreary shines as Elwood P. Dowd, the only one who can see the invisible rabbit.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Talking to imaginary rabbits seems to be all the rage these days. In "Miss Potter," the enchanting new Beatrix Potter biopic, Renee Zelllweger's Potter converses with her drawings of Peter Rabbit and sundry bunny pals. But "Harvey" protagonist Elwood P. Dowd did it first, of course. Dowd talked to animals -- specifically one 6-foot-1 1/2-inch rabbit named Harvey -- before talking to animals was cool.
"Harvey," Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1945 play, is best remembered for giving Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart one of his most beloved screen roles in the 1950 movie version. While there have been countless "Harvey" remakes over the years (including 1958 and 1998 TV versions starring Art Carney and Harry Anderson, respectively), the Elwood -- and "Harvey" -- most people remember is Stewart's unparalleled, Oscar-nominated portrayal.
Unique performance
Since Stewart is the most famous Elwood P. Dowd on record, it's not surprising that most actors inevitably wind up doing a Stewart imitation while attempting this community theater staple. To his credit, Alan McCreary, who plays Elwood in the Youngstown Playhouse's current revival of "Harvey," effortlessly nails the most important requirement of the role. McCreary makes you believe there's really a humongous rabbit named Harvey on stage that he's talking to. (It's not easy acting opposite empty space.) What's more, McCreary appears to have never seen Stewart's fabled interpretation. His performance feels completely unique and could never be compared with anyone else's. That's quite an achievement.
Although I wish that Chase's play itself had aged better -- what was very funny 50-plus years ago is just mildly amusing today -- "Harvey" director David El'Hatton manages to wring every last drop of charm from a dated text. If belly laughs are in short supply, it's impossible not to grin from ear to ear when you're in the company of gifted comedians like El'Hatton's uniformly strong ensemble cast.
Madcap comedy
As the play opens, Elwood's long-suffering sister Veta (Barbara Evans) and niece Myrtle (Candy DiLullo) are conspiring to have their Harvey-obsessed brother/uncle committed to a nearby psychiatric institution. Yet, since Elwood appears so, well, sane to Chumley's Rest doctor Sanderson (John Pecano) and nurse Kelly (Dani Conway), it's the high-strung Veta who gets locked up instead. After Elwood takes a powder, the entire hospital staff -- including Dr. Chumley (Terry Shears) and a disorderly orderly (Brian Peters) -- embarks on a search-and-rescue mission to retrieve the missing scamp and his best friend Harvey. Does Harvey exist, or is he just a figment of Elwood's pickled imagination? (Because it's even more apparent today that Elwood is a chronic lush, why doesn't anyone smell the liquor on his breath?) Chase never provided satisfactory answers to those questions in her play, so the ending still feels a bit like a cheat.
For being the ostensible lead, McCreary is conspicuously absent for a good chunk of the action. When he finally returns in the second half of Act 2, the production's energy level picks up exponentially. Despite yeoman work from Pecano and Conway, a subplot about Sanderson and Kelly's slow-burning mutual attraction feels superfluous. Fortunately, El'Hatton keeps the pace fairly spiffy throughout, and a slew of well-judged supporting performances (including a first-rate Shears who seems to be channeling Gale Gordon, Lucille Ball's curmudgeonly comic foil) helps make this an entertaining evening.
"Harvey" is playing weekends through Feb. 4 at the Youngstown Playhouse. For tickets and information, call (330) 788-8739.

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