Harvey opens at Laguna Playhouse with an enchanting ensemble that proves magic is real

By DIANNE RUSSELL

The wizardry of Harvey is its ability to conjure up the illusion of an imaginary six-and-a-half-foot tall white rabbit that the audience never sees. On opening night of Harvey at Laguna Playhouse, the masterful pairing of French Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd and Vanessa Claire Stewart as his sister Veta Louise Simmons – along with the entire ensemble – accomplishes just that, using their collective talent to bring Harvey and the play to life. It’s equal parts whimsy and a disturbing observation of today’s society, and Sunday’s opening night crowd loved it.

A comedy classic, Harvey wraps up the Playhouse’s 2018-2019 season – its 98th – in the ideal way. When introducing Director Andrew Barnicle, who was in attendance, Ann E. Wareham, Playhouse artistic director, said, “I wouldn’t put this play into any hands but his.”

Harvey opens French

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Courtesy of LB Playhouse

French Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd

With flawless nuanced gestures, French Stewart as Elwood possesses just the right amount of mischief and pathos to captivate the audience from his first appearance on stage. Vanessa (his real life wife) is the perfect Veta, brandishing a fiery and inextinguishable spark. They play off each other with skill and well-practiced finesse.

All the cast members contribute to the wonderful allure of the story: Lily Gibson as Myrtle Mae Simmons brings to mind Betty Boop, and that’s a big compliment. Nick Gabriel as Dr. Lyman Sanderson and Roxane Hayward as Nurse Ruth Kelly demonstrate palpable chemistry. Gregory North as Dr. William Chumley and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as Duane Wilson are crackerjack comedians. Teresa Ganzel as Betty Chumley, Larry Cedar as Judge Omar Gaffney, Carole Ita White as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet, and Tom Shelton as E.J. Lofgren contribute just the right touches…

 

Harvey opens house

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Courtesy of LB Playhouse

(L-R) French Stewart, Lily Gibson, Vanessa Claire Stewart, and Carole Ita White

Written by Mary Chase, Harvey was first brought to the stage in 1944 and ran for 1,775 performances. The movie came out in 1950, and the play’s latest revival occurred in 2012. Although one might think a story penned during World War II would be outdated, and have no significance in 2019, its universal themes are as relevant today as they were 74 years ago. Part fantasy, part commentary on the cultural hunger for conformity, this farce very much hits home. 

It is a spring afternoon at the Dowd family home when Elwood P. Dowd, a kind, middle-aged, eccentric alcoholic starts to introduce his imaginary friend Harvey, a six-and-a-half-foot tall rabbit, to guests at his sister Veta’s society luncheon. Horrified that the embarrassing family secret is now exposed, Veta decides to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium, but a terrible mistake is made when Veta is committed rather than Elwood. However, that dilemma is soon rectified.

Harvey opens Veta

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Courtesy of LB Playhouse

(L-R) Lily Gibson, Vanessa Claire Stewart, and Larry Cedar

Now it’s Elwood who’s sought after. Much of the action takes place in the mental facility where Veta is ultimately presented with a way to get rid of the rabbit via a concoction administered by Dr. Chumley, the psychiatrist, one that would render Elwood “normal” and obliterate any of his distinctive traits. 

Does she do it? No spoilers here.

Local Heidi Miller, owner of Tight Assets, said, “This 1944 Pulitzer Prize winning classic is brought to life on the Laguna Playhouse stage with precision timing and comedic undertones. It’s guaranteed to leave you smiling and believing. To quote Elwood’s mother, ‘In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.’ To which Elwood responds, ‘For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.’”

The behind the scene artists deserve kudos as well: Bruce Goodrich, scenic design; Kate Bergh, costume design; Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, lighting design; Kate Wecker, sound design; Anthony Gagliardi, wig design; Vernon Willet, production stage manager; and Michael Donovan, CSA, casting director.

Harvey opens coin purse

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Courtesy of LB Playhouse

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, French Stewart, Gregory North, Vanessa Claire Stewart, Lily Gibson, and Larry Cedar

All the elements – the actors, costumes, sets – work together to weave a magic spell that blurs the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not. So much so, who wouldn’t imagine a six-and-a-half-foot rabbit with bewitching powers?

Perhaps not so surprising, another rabbit depicted in literature appears wise beyond his furry cottontail.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be as it is, because everything would be what it isn’t,” says the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

The White Rabbit, Harvey, and Elwood P. Dowd all seem to have the right idea.

As Ann E. Wareham said at the introduction of the play, “Everyone looks at the world in a different way.” 

Harvey celebrates those differences. 

Don’t miss one of the remaining performances. The play runs through Sunday, June 16. To purchase tickets for Harvey or for full actor biographies, go to www.lagunaplayhouse.com.

Laguna Playhouse is located at 606 Laguna Canyon Rd. For more information, call (949) 497-2787.

 

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