Friday, October 12, 2012

"Harvey" at Level Ground Arts Theater in Dallas: Oh So Pleasant

"Good heavens, man! Haven't you any righteous indignation?"
"Oh, Doctor, years ago my mother used to say to me... 'In this world you can be oh, so smart, or oh, so pleasant.' For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."
I have wanted to see Harvey, Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, since I was a child, but it's not a play that turns up very often. That's a sad thing because this is a beautiful play: the story of Elwood Dowd, a man who confounds his family because he insists that he is always accompanied by a gigantic invisible rabbit, Harvey is always able to bring me close to tears with the serene wisdom of its central character.
Elwood, played here by Dick Monday, is not actually insane, although his family at various times wants him committed, and he is not naive. What you have in Elwood is a man who has absorbed the bitter lessons of life and responded with an entire way-- a dao of Dowd, if you will-- that involves kindness towards everyone he encounters. Elwood is a brave character. He knows what people think of him. This is better. There is a central monologue where you get a glimpse of the inner workings of Elwood, who knows that the people he meets in bars need him as much as he needs his giant rabbit friend; they need him because they must tell someone of "the big, terrible things they have done, and the big, wonderful things they will do, all very large, because no one ever brings anything small into a bar."
Monday delivers these lines in a pitch-perfect performance in the same intimate theater space as a screwball cast rotates around him: Elwood's hyperventilating sister (played with 1950s fusssiness by Laura Jones), his conniving but ultimately lonely niece Myrtle May (my fellow UD alum  Audrey Ahern), a pair of would-lovers in denial (Megan Ruth Nieves and Robert Shores as nurse and doctor), Shawn Patrello as a renowned psychiatrist who just wants time to stop and maybe his own invisible rabbit, and clown (really! she's been a clown!) Tiffany Riley playing two different non-clown women, a stooped old socialite and a prim younger socialite who is instantly floored by the charm of Elwood.
You know what comes next after Harvey? The next production will be the holiday play Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. He's aided by a
That's the sort of thing you get at the Level Ground Arts Theater, a company founded by writer/director Bill Fountain, and it's clear that Fountain has a singular, almost quixotic vision. I said I wanted to see Harvey and hadn't had the chance-- and yet here it is. I've watched with something like wonder as LGA has brought us plays of Carnival of Souls (a harrowing, chilling production based on the 1962 cult film but transplanted to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Metropolis (performed silent, to music), and even cult oddities like Manos, the Hands of Fate. The work of this playhouse is so approachable and yet utterly insane that it reminds me of Elwood, the friend of Harvey: Level Ground Arts begs to be followed because there are wistful visions and strange surprises here.
I forgot to mention: Fountain shows up in Harvey, too, in an almost-cameo as a cab driver who gets to drive home the lesson of the play with a few lines of dialogue, that sometimes the mad are worth listening to, and even following.
Harvey plays weekends Level Ground Arts Theater in Dallas until Saturday October 27. Make it a date. It is both smart and pleasant, a rare combination.

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