I don't know when our feelings toward misfits began to change. But it is fairly evident that we no longer regard them with quite the warmth and delight we once did. Over the past few decades, the misfit has turned threatening and his existence has become progressively more tormented. His singularity is no longer a source of pleasure, but an indictment of a malfunctioning society that deforms some of its members and then casts them aside.
The contemporary theater is filled with them -- alienated, anxiety-ridden, raging impotently against a world that seemingly has no room for them. If you want to know how much our attitudes have changed, I suggest you take a look at "Harvey," a most amiable comedy from 1944, which the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has chosen to inaugurate its new home at 1401 Church St. NW.
Of course, "Harvey" is worth looking at for its own sake. It remains a sweetly fanciful play, filled with gentle humor, amusingly addled characters and bright dialogue. "You've got a lot to learn," snaps an impatient mother to her giddy daughter, "and I hope you never learn it." For her part, the daughter boasts proudly, "I'm like my father's family. They're all dead." Nice, nutty lines, those, and "Harvey" is awash in them.
Its central character, you may recall, is one Elwood P. Dowd, a congenial tippler whose best pal is a six-foot white rabbit named Harvey. No one else can see Harvey and that's the rub. Elwood insists on introducing him to his sister's society friends, to fellow drinkers at the corner bar, to anyone, in fact, who crosses his meandering path. Harvey, he reasons, is such a delightful companion that others deserve to know him, too.
Elwood's sister Veta Louise and his niece Myrtle Mae are of a different mind. They've seen the odd looks that Elwood provokes each time he ushers Harvey into a room, offers him a chair and pours him a drink. And they're determined to put an end to the nonsense by committing Elwood to a sanitarium, where a quick injection of "shock formula 977" will bring him back to his senses.
If "Harvey" had been written in the last 15 or 20 years, I dare say, he'd get the shot. The play, however, is clearly of another age. America was just coming out of World War II; the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness had been successfully defended against the forces of totalitarianism. The world was not only becoming safe again for democracy, but for kooks, too. And God bless 'em.
Playwright Mary Chase was duly skeptical of the burgeoning practice of psychiatry. If the play has any heavies, they're the doctors at Chumley's Rest, the sanitarium on the outskirts of town. And they're largely bumblers, confused creatures who'll eventually wake up and smell the prize-winning dahlias that Dr. Chumley himself grows on the hospital grounds. "Harvey" exudes a spirit of tolerance you don't much find in the drama today.
That spirit continues to shine through in Woolly Mammoth's production, which has its shortcomings, but not enough to sabotage the revival. The two central roles -- Elwood and his sister Veta Louise -- are in the capable hands of Grover Gardner and Nancy Robinette. Elsewhere, certain casting deficiencies are apparent (Ernie Sult's Dr. Chumley being the most apparent), but they don't present insurmountable barriers to your enjoyment.
Gardner's unassuming manners and the twinkle in his eye make his an ingratiating presence. He has the ability to suggest that he is very much plugged into the people around him and off in a dream world at the same time. That's a tough double optic to maintain; Gardner makes it look perfectly natural.
Robinette, on the other hand, is a total frazzle, trying to hold herself together and failing spectacularly. You'd expect Veta Louise to come unglued, especially after she, not Elwood, gets mistakenly plopped down in a tub of hot water by a dimwitted sanitarium orderly. Robinette, however, does more. In the course of a single line of dialogue, she can lose her bearings, regain control of herself and then fall apart all over again. The actress elevates dither to epic dimensions.
The Woolly Mammoth has long had a predilection for the offbeat and it cottons quickly to the zaniness in Chase's script. Richard H. Young's two sets are somewhat skimpy, but when it comes time to change from one to the other, they, too, reveal their cockamamie originality.
The production is less successful in recreating the period flavor of "Harvey." Rosemary Pardee-Holz's costumes, in particular, are dreadfully slipshod, and Jayme N. Koszyn's direction tends toward cartoon-strip overstatements. There are some heartfelt emotions in "Harvey" that are getting glossed over when they're not being exploded for laughs. The supporting players often go for broad, if not for broke, and the tightly knit ensemble playing that has characterized past Woolly Mammoth productions isn't greatly in evidence here.
Still, there's a lovely, understated bit at the end by Andrew White, as a taxi driver who delivers Chase's message that it's the crackpots who make the world the lovely place it is. We may no longer believe that. But "Harvey" is a welcome and reassuring reminder that once we did.
by Mary Chase. Directed by Jayme N. Koszyn. Set, Richard H. Young; costumes, Rosemary Pardee-Holz; lighting, Lewis Folden. With Grover Gardner, Jennifer Mendenhall, Nancy Robinette, Nancy Grosshans, Gra'inne Cassidy, Rob Roy, Scott Sedar, Ernie Sult, Jim Byrnes and Andrew White. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, through Dec. 13