'Harvey' leads audiences down rabbit hole
All would seem normal for the straight-laced Dowd-Simmons family when we come upon them at the opening of "Harvey," entertaining guests after the funeral of their matriarch in mid-century rural Iowa.
That is, if you disregard the 6-foot-tall rabbit in the room.
Southwest Stage Works, Wilson High School's theater company, recently put on "Harvey" for its spring production. Student teacher Karl Metz, a Concordia University master's candidate and Wilson alum, directed the show.
The play, written by Mary Chase in 1944, centers around the confusion and hijinks that occur after it is revealed that the protagonist, Elwood P. Dowd (played by William Britton), has befriended a man-size rabbit by the name of Harvey. No one else can see Harvey — or can they?
The central question running through the production relates to understanding imagination and insanity. The characters spend the entire time toiling over putting someone — anyone — in the Dowd-Simmons family in a "sanitarium" for seeing the unseeable. When Dowd's sister speaks a little too familiarly about the presence of the bunny, the staff at Chumley's Rest institution commit her instead of her brother. And later, when the main psychiatrist, Dr. William Chumley, visits with Dowd and begins to see Harvey himself, his composure immediately gives way to nervous anxiety and paranoia.
But what if Harvey actually represents the collective imagination running wild? Metz understood that challenge early on, and had the actors embrace their imaginations during auditions.
"I asked all the students to come in and describe their imaginary friend," Metz said. "I just wanted to see how they all played and were willing to use their imaginations and make stuff up and also work with an imaginary actor, essentially."
But the show isn't all playful absurdity. Harvey, and the comedy surrounding his presence, becomes a tool to comment on larger, more serious issues relating to conceptions and treatments of mental illness at the time.
"It seems to be a very progressive show, because it seems like Mary Chase is trying to communicate that she thinks the attitude at the time toward mental illness needs to be updated and taken more seriously, and that we need to try to help people as opposed to locking them in giant tubs of water," said Wolf Morgan-Steiner, who played Dr. Chumley. "I found it very interesting that a woman in the '40s was like, 'Here's my opinion on this thing, but I'm going to write it in a way that tricks you into thinking it was your own idea.'''
Any other characterization of Elwood could have cast him as a spinning top ready to fly off the handle, or someone completely separated from reality. But thanks to Britton's completely unflappable niceties and calmness, audience members might forget something was amiss with Dowd, were it not for his occasional mutterings and chuckling to nearby air.
"It seems like Elwood is the only clinically sane person in the show," Britton said. "He's very laid back and he only wants to see the best in people and treats everybody with a genuine politeness."
One of the things the actors and Metz struggled with was making the production appear timeless in a period full of antiquated themes relating to mental illness.
"There are certainly themes that still apply: themes of ostracism, themes of people being turned away because of their quirks. And the theme of trying to accept people for who they are, no matter who they are, rings true no matter when it is," Metz said.