Harvey is back, and French Stewart is seeing him (even if we can’t) in Laguna Playhouse’s spiffy 2019 revival of Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy classic.

Now if only said Harvey didn’t pose such a problem for society matron Veta Louise Simmons (Vanessa Claire Stewart), whose hopes of finding a husband for her marriageable daughter Myrtle Mae (Lily Gibson) are being constantly sabotaged by a six-foot-tall rabbit invisible to all but her eccentric brother Elwood P. Dowd (French Stewart).

Hence Veta’s determination to have Elwood committed to Chumley’s Experimental Rest Home For The Mentally Askew, a plan that goes disastrously askew when it’s Veta herself who’s hauled off to a padded cell thanks to hospital staffers William R. Chumley, M.D. (Gregory North), Lyman Sanderson, M.D. (Nick Gabriel), Ruth Kelly, R.N. (Roxane Hayward), and orderly Duane Wilson’s (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) unfortunate misapprehension that it’s Veta who’s hallucinating and not her brother.

And this is only the start of the intellectual screwball comedy that beat Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie for the 1944 Pulitzer, a play that may have faded into relative obscurity compared to the Williams masterpiece but whose 75th-anniversary Laguna Playhouse revival reveals considerable depth beneath between its surface gaiety and froth.

Is the six-foot rodent a figment of Elwood’s imagination or is he merely invisible to those too “normal” to see him? Has Elwood’s life improved since Harvey came into it, or would he be better off if modern psychiatry could rid him of what may or may not be a delusion? Is sanity all it’s cracked up to be?

These are just a few of the questions you may find yourself attempting to answer as Harvey weaves its magic spell over Laguna Playhouse under Andrew Barnicle’s flairful direction.

 A 1950 movie adaptation may have made Elwood P. Dowd’s name synonymous with another actor surnamed Stewart, but there’s not a trace of Jimmy in his namesake’s irresistible star turn on the Laguna Playhouse stage, the L.A. theater treasure investing Elwood with the signature quirks audiences have savored since 3rd Rock From The Sun rocketed a young actor named French to TV stardom while at the same time making Elwood his own distinct, heartfelt creation.

Stewart’s real-life leading lady reinvents the reputation-conscious Veta, giving her as much steel as dither, and just wait till Elwood’s sis makes her second, post-hydro tub appearance in hilarious disarray.

North has great fun as the pompous but weirdly endearing Dr. Wilson, who dreams of an anonymous romantic encounter with “a pretty young woman, a strange young woman, a quiet woman” in Akron, go figure.

Gibson’s Myrtle Mae steals every scene she’s in as a moneyed ingenue with a high-pitched screech of a voice to do Betty Boop proud, and ignites some crackling chemistry with Mongiardo-Cooper’s pizzazzy palooka of a hospital orderly, Gabriel and Hayward completing the loony bin staff to perfection while doing some chemistry igniting of their own along the way.

Last but not least, Teresa Ganzel (vanishing inside Dr. Chumley’s wife Betty’s high society skin), Larry Cedar (as the quietly-smitten-with-Veta Judge Omar Gaffney), Carole Ita White (in classic dowager mode as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet), and Tom Shelton (doing his best deus ex machina as a philosophical cab driver named E.J. Lofgren) deliver a series of superbly rendered featured turns.

Adding to Harvey’s appeal every step of the way are scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s stunningly detailed set (half Dowd-Simmons library and half Chumley’s Rest), Kate Bergh’s meticulously designed period costumes, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s effectively mood-enhancing lighting, Kate Wecker’s magic-making sound design, and Anthony Gagliardi’s pitch-perfect character wigs.

Vernon Willet is production stage manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.

Mary Chase’s Harvey may remain a school and community theater staple, but rarely are professional theaters granted their crack at this 20th-century American classic, just one reason to celebrate Elwood P. Dowd and company’s arrival in the OC.

Mixing whimsy and nostalgia with abundant laughter and unexpected depth, Harvey lights up the Laguna Playhouse stage, no matter that only Elwood can see him.

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Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Reservations: 949 497-2787

–Steven Stanley
June 2, 2019
Photos: Ed Krieger

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