So many things have to work together perfectly to create theater magic -- a sense of a transcendent experience -- that it is a marvel it ever happens at all.
Theatre for the Community, self-identified as a semiprofessional company, is aiming to create that magic while attracting patrons with plays that have a high comfort level with audiences. First there was "Our Town" in November 2004, followed by "Arsenic and Old Lace," and now "Harvey," currently onstage at the Cramer Center in Manassas. These old-fashioned and familiar plays remain demanding to perform successfully.
That's particularly true of "Harvey," which won a Pulitzer Prize for its playwright, Mary Chase. It tells the story of an eccentric man and his best friend, a 6-foot-tall invisible rabbit. The success of "Harvey" depends on how well the actors can create a warm, slightly charmed atmosphere while negotiating their way through scenes of wacky slapstick alternating with subtle moments of introspective musings on the nature of contentment and how people learn to cope with life. The rabbit is not really played for laughs.
The acting by the 11-member cast is competent but generally uninspired. The scenic design and technical elements are functional but remain basic and unimaginative, and although there is a bit of magic here, it is fleeting.
Elwood P. Dowd (George Kitchen) is happy ambling through life, spending a lot of time in bars and keeping company with his invisible pal in a small town. His sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Barbara D. Carpenter) is vexed and embarrassed. She thinks Elwood might benefit from a new drug that will make him forget about the rabbit and become "normal."
Directed by Lucile O'Connor Hood, "Harvey" starts out enervated and plodding but gradually builds energy and produces numerous enjoyable moments. With the production's emphasis apparently on just getting through the elemental plot points, the resilient strength of the script carries the day.
Everyone who plays Elwood tends to be measured against James Stewart, who briefly played the role on Broadway (following the original Elwood, Frank Fay) and in a 1950 movie version. As Elwood, Kitchen is okay, but he doesn't make us believe Harvey is with him, and that is essential to making this play work. Sometimes he glances at Harvey at the six-foot level; the next moment it's nine feet. Kitchen convincingly displays a placid, unruffled demeanor, but his artificial-sounding cheer makes Elwood seem a tad eerie, rather than charmingly eccentric.
As the befuddled Veta, Carpenter is called upon to chew the scenery as the scheming but well-meaning woman gets inadvertently whisked into the psychiatric facility where she is trying to send Elwood. Sputtering, gesticulating and over-the-top comedy is called for, and Carpenter delivers. That makes up for the play's opening scene, which she shares with actress Holly McNamee, who awkwardly plays her daughter, Myrtle Mae. The two slowly strangle all the energy onstage until the play limps weakly to Scene 2 and begins to recover.
In supporting roles, Kara Quick and Adam Hyland are appealing as a nurse and doctor fighting an overpowering mutual attraction even as mayhem swirls about them.
Stephen J. Cramer's lackluster lighting and scenic design seem planned primarily with the bottom line in mind. (He's the Cramer of the Cramer Center, after all.) He strews the same recycled materials from just about every show around the stage again. The lighting is sitcom flat, with no attempt to evoke a fantasy spirit or tease Harvey's presence.
At the one-year mark, Theatre for the Community is more "semi" than "professional" and can be rated at the lower-middle of the pack for community theaters.
"Harvey," performed by Theatre for the Community, continues through Nov. 20 at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center St., Manassas. Performances ar 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. There will be a talk-back between cast and audience this Sunday. 703- 365-8350 or www.cramercenter.com.