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Invisible rabbit steals the show in Guthrie's 'Harvey'

Ryan Shams (Dr. Sanderson), David Kelly (Elwood P. Dowd), Ashley Rose Montondo (Nurse Kelly) and Tyson Forbes (Duane Wilson) in a scene from the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Harvey.” (T. Charles Erickson/Guthrie Theater)

MINNEAPOLIS — The real star of the 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, “Harvey,” currently on stage at the Minneapolis Guthrie Theater, is an invisible six-foot white rabbit. One night a kind, warm-hearted man named Elwood P. Dowd discovers Harvey, this giant rabbit, leaning  against a lamp post downtown and brings him home to Elwood’s house, which he shares with his sister and his niece.

Even though no one except Elwood can see Harvey, his presence puts a damper on the family’s activities. Sister Veta and her daughter, who is of marriageable age, love to give parties, especially now that it’s time to launch the young woman into society. The success of her social life is threatened by Elwood’s habit of introducing Harvey to the startled guests. A chair at the table is always saved for Harvey, and Elwood carries on conversations with him while others listen in complete confusion.

David Kelly in his debut performance at Guthrie (he’s been an actor for 25 years) delights as Elwood. Kind and genial, totally lovable, he values the friendship of every stranger he meets. Kelly shows a courtly manner while stepping aside at a door, making a little bow, inviting Harvey to precede him. To a guest walking around a room, he says in his gentle voice: “Pardon me, but you’re standing in Harvey’s way.”

Sally Wingert steps into the character of the sister with ease as she has for roles in more than 80 Guthrie productions. Veta is a nervous, fluttery type, and Wingert keeps these mannerisms well under control. Devoted to her brother, Veta has had all she can take of “that white rabbit.”  Finally she agrees to commit Elwood to a nice, quiet sanitarium where doctors will know what to do about Harvey.

Unfortunately the sanitarium’s staff mistakes Veta for the patient because she’s the one in great distress while Elwood is his usual easy-going self. A lively scenario of mixed-up antics follows.

On stage are two baffled psychiatrists, portrayed by Steve Hendrickson and Ryan Shams; a nurse by Ashley Rose Montendo; and an orderly,Tyson Forbes. The final scenes, though funny, have a dated feel to them, since treatment for mental illness has changed so much since the early 1940s when Mary Chase wrote this script.

Playwright Chase remembered advice from her mother as she began work on “Harvey”: “Never make fun of those whom others consider crazy, for they often have a wisdom of their own.”

Guthrie set changes are interesting to watch. A trapdoor in the floor opens to convert from the elegant Elwood Dowd home library to the sterile white hospital’s admittance area. A really clever stage prop is Harvey’s hat, left behind on a table. The crown has two large holes to accommodate Harvey’s ears.

An almost-full house at our matinee responded with enthusiasm to this play and its message of kindliness toward all. During the latter part of the show, a portrait of Harvey is hung above the Dowd fireplace, bringing forth a round of applause and laughter from the audience. It’s the only opportunity to see that rabbit, even though his presence is felt throughout all three acts.

Directed by Libby Appel, “Harvey” continues its merry romp through May 15.