Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Harvey

Cory Wojcik, Mark Crawford (photo by Leif Norman)

Rabbit Season
I reject your reality and substitute my own.
by Edgar Governo

Since my 11-year-old nephew had never seen a play at The John Hirsch Theatre in Winnipeg, I decided to have him join me for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Harvey--the whimsical story of the outgoing Elwood and his titular best friend, an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. At the intermission, he turned to me and noted that Elwood acted "a lot like Doctor Sheldon Cooper."

What I already knew which my nephew didn't when he made that comment was that Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, had starred as Elwood in a Broadway revival of Harvey last year. As such, I sincerely hope that Mark Crawford was not deliberately choosing to play Elwood in the Parsons mode based on the same knowledge, but his seeming Texas drawl (which matches the accent of Parsons but not that of any other character in this production) and the mannerisms he employs in his performance are disturbingly similar.

Beyond Crawford, many other elements in the play will also seem familiar to those who have seen the faithfully-adapted 1950 film version starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood, though the play is structured around only two locations--a room in the Dowd family home and the main area of Chumley's Rest, the sanitorium where Elwood's sister Veta (Catherine Fitch) attempts to have him committed only to have herself under a psychiatrist's scrutiny instead--while the film offers various scenes at Charlie's Place, Elwood's oft-mentioned favourite bar in town. This production uses a rotating set to transition smoothly between those two settings without losing any momentum built into the script, which drags somewhat in the middle as written.

This production of the play does improve on a number of flaws in the film, most notably a subplot about the flirtation between Wilson (Cory Wojcik, seen last season at RMTC in Miracle on South Division Street, which I also reviewed on this site), an orderly at Chumley's Rest, and Veta's daughter Myrtle Mae (Alissa Watson), who show far more chemistry here than Jesse White and Victoria Horne have in the movie. The film version also tends to be much more low-key, giving the whole story the pace of Jimmy Stewart taking a leisurely stroll down the road, while this version allows the more farcical elements to come through. Doctor Chumley (Steven Ratzlaff) shows the most willingness to go down this path of screwball comedy, but my appreciation for that probably says more about my own tastes, since someone else attending this show might prefer to focus on the earnest emotional moments.


That earnestness is the heart of this story--believing in Harvey as a pooka (a playful spirit from Celtic mythology) meant to guide Elwood and the other characters who allow themselves to see him as opposed to thinking he is just a hallucination of Elwood's that requires a cure. The problem in this case is that there are so many other theatrical spirits invisibly present in this performance--an iconic film performance, a recent turn by a well-known television comedian, the hypothetical version of Elwood who could've come to life if Mark Crawford had put more of his own spin on the character--that it's a wonder Harvey has enough room to move across the stage at all.

Harvey runs to November 9.

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