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A Whimsical Rabbit from For The Whim Productions

by Stephen Kreal

On Sunday, April 14th, I had the pleasure of seeing For the Whim’s production of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Harvey”, written by Mary Chase. The performance was held at Hopeloft in Bridgeton, NJ. Hopeloft is a quaint performance space with approximately 60 seats.

Mary Chase was inspired to write the play after noticing her widowed neighbor (who had also lost her son in World War 2). Chase said in an interview:  “I began to wonder if this woman would be able to laugh again…what kind of thing would make her laugh. I thought if I could contrive something like this-for her- then it would make thousands of other mother who had received those black-bordered telegrams laugh again”.

 I mention this anecdote because the script is very funny. I have no doubt that if that woman got to see a performance, she would have surely laughed, as did I along with the nearly packed house audience.

Director Heidi Dugan (along with Assistant Director Ryan Dailey) does a masterful job at combining technical elements with fine performances from her talented cast. Upon taking my seat, I noticed the simple, elegant set. The set was quickly transformed from the living room of the Dowd mansion to the reception office of Chumley’s Sanitarium. The scene changes were quick, efficient and seamless. You could see the silhouettes of what appeared to be every cast member pitching in to keep the action moving.

When I first saw the set, I was confused by the monochrome appearance of the backdrop. It was only after the play started that I realized that the Production Manager (Joe Dugan) and Lighting Designer (Tyler Davis) brilliantly created the greyscale set to be illuminated by lights, which were differentiated to establish the tone of the scene. I was so impressed, that I asked to be shown the setup after the performance, which the crew was happy to show me.

The plot revolves around socialite Elwood P. Dowd, a happy-go-lucky man with an affinity for card-playing and bar-hopping. Elwood earnestly believes that he has a friend named Harvey. Elwood’s sister and niece are embarrassed by his behavior, specifically his friendship with Harvey (a six-foot, one and a half inch tall white rabbit). Fusco’s “interactions” with his imaginary (?) lagomorph friend are filled with humor and warmth. David J. Fusco plays Dowd with elegance and charm. Fusco truly captures the essence of Elwood’s naïve kindness and eloquent speech patterns.

Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons (played by Maura Mauer Jarve) is distressed that she can no longer host society functions at her brother’s mansion (where she and her daughter live). Jarve was outstanding at showing Veta’s frustration and dismay at the impact that Elwood’s behavior has had on her lifestyle. Veta is frazzled and frustrated, and Jarve’s performance was quite impressive! I particularly enjoyed the scene when returns home after her “visit” to the sanitarium!

The opening scene has a cameo appearance of a character, Mrs. Chauvenet, a high society lady and old family friend, who insists on visiting with Elwood. Mrs. Chauvenet is played by actress April Johnson, a real “scene stealer”, who brilliantly commands the stage during her brief scene.

Myrtle Mae Simmons (played wonderfully by Ashley Kotter) is a young woman on a mission to find a man to marry. Kotter displayed an amazing range of facial expressions that added to her performance. Like her mother, she feels that Uncle Elwood’s eccentricity is hampering her efforts to find a suitable man. Kotter did an exemplary job of showing the frustration her character felt. Exasperated after being humiliated by Elwood (who came home during a party), Veta and Myrtle May hatch a plan to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Sanitarium.

This is when the action of the play heats up, as we meet the staff at Chumley’s Sanitarium. The scene change was very quick, and we meet Nurse Ruth Kelly (Desiree Lara), the young, up-and-coming  Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Brian Danner), the unhinged orderly Mr. Wilson (Tanner Cossaboon), and Dr. William R. Chumley (Hank Chandless). This ensemble of characters is a wonderful mix of zany individuals in a classic mix-up scenario, which leads to some great laughs.

In a comedic twist, Veta is admitted to Chumley’s Rest (the name of the sanitarium) instead of Elwood. She is handled roughly by Mr. Wilson. When she finally gets home, her lawyer, Judge Omar Gaffney (Richard Mooney) rages in righteous indignation over her mistreatment. Mooney did a great job at being just slightly daft.

The characters of Nurse Kelly and Dr. Sanderson clearly like each-other, but each tries to resist this attraction, to the point of hurling mean-spirited comments, reminiscent of awkward adolescents who don’t know how to express their feelings. Lara and Danner have several hilarious interactions, delivered with impeccable comedic timing. Danner was particularly skilled at portraying the overconfidence of a young, handsome doctor. Lara’s longing, loving glances at Sanderson provided nuance to her performance.

We are then introduced to Dr. Chumley and his wife Betty (played by Silvia Darpino). They reminded me of a long-married couple, with a combination of affection mixed with boredom. Dr. Chumley (Chandless) was very adept at portraying the smug arrogance of an educated, successful doctor. He becomes obsessed with Elwood and Harvey, and his interest may go beyond wanting to help Elwood and perhaps take advantage of Harvey’s special abilities. Chumley enlists the help of his orderly (Mr. Wilson) to find the missing Elwood and enact his plan.

In the climactic scene, Elwood pours out his heart in a beautiful, eloquent monologue, again highlighting the amazing performance of David J. Fusco as Elwood. His delivery was perfect, and he stayed firmly in character with his mannerisms and inflections.

 I hate to spoil a play (even though it is nearly 80 years old), so I will simply tell you that everything is neatly wrapped up. I would like to recognize a character named E.J. Lofgren (played by Maria Canino). She played the cab driver at the end (with a great accent).

The costuming (Nerys Muller) was period appropriate with no obvious anachronisms. The dresses and coats were color-coordinated without clashing.

In summary, this production is entertaining and well-done. If you have a chance to see FTW’s production, you have four more chances this week. You can purchase tickets here.


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