Maskers’ ‘Harvey’ charms audience in Belfast

Posted May 04, 2010, at 7:09 p.m.

The Belfast Maskers has kicked off its 23rd season with the classic comedy “Harvey.” Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his “friend” Harvey.

Harvey is an unusually large white rabbit that few but Dowd can see and hear. It is Dowd’s refusal to accept that Harvey shows himself to few others that sets the comedy in motion in Chase’s two-act play.

Like Elwood, theatergoers must engage their imaginations to accept the 1940s view of mental illness and the female characters’ limited ambitions the playwright presents. While many members of Saturday night’s audience could remember a time when sanitariums were where families who could afford it hid away relatives who conversed with 6-foot-tall rabbits and a woman’s goal was to land a good man, younger theatergoers may leave the theater scratching their heads.

It is the strength of James Clayton’s charming performance as Dowd and Charlotte Herbold’s energetic portrayal of his sister Veta Simmons that allows an audience to overlook how dated this script is.

Clayton doesn’t so much as imitate James Stewart as channel him. Stewart played Dowd in the film version of “Harvey,” and it is considered to be one of the actor’s iconic performances.

As Dowd, Clayton makes the role his own but conjures up the slight hesitancy in Stewart’s speech pattern. The actor’s gestures and long-fingered hands also invoke Stewart’s ghost.

By accepting that many of the Maskers’ regular audience associate the role with Stewart and giving this slight nod to the film star, Clayton doubly charms theatergoers. It is Clayton’s personification of Dowd’s sweet and optimistic embrace of his fellow man that carries the production and makes every member of the audience want to sit down for a drink with the guy.

Herbold is a bit too old to be Clayton’s older sister, but the actress has impeccable comic timing and wrings every laugh from the dialogue.

She adroitly balances Veta’s constant waffling between her desire to keep her brother and Harvey from destroying her and her daughter’s social life and doing what’s best for him.

The physical transformation the actress makes in Act Two from in-charge matron to escaped mental patient fuels most of the laughs. Herbold’s energy as Veta is a lovely foil to Clayton’s laid-back Dowd. Together, they carry their less talented cast mates and the production over some rocky and rather dull moments.

Director Angela Bonacasa uses the Maskers’ three-quarters round stage to great advantage. Theatergoers feel like flies on the walls of Dowd’s library and the Chumley Rest Home instead of an audience.

Bonacasa says in her director’s notes in the program that “Elwood and Harvey challenge us to reconnect with our imaginations, and think about where we can go when there are no limits.”

This production doesn’t quite accomplish that, but spending an afternoon or evening with Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey is a fantastic way to while away a few hours with a couple of really great human beings. They are much nicer than most of the so-called sane people in the real world.

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