Review: M&D presents funny, charming ‘Harvey’

ALEC KERR
CONWAY DAILY SUN

Ryan Orlando (left) and Frank Thompson star as Dr. William Chumley and Dr. Lyman Sanderson in M&D Playhouse’s production of “Harvey,” which opened Thursday, June 20, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse. (LISA DUFAULT PHOTO)

CONWAY — For its first show of the summer, M&D Playhouse presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy classic “Harvey,” which opened Thursday, June 20, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, with performances Thursday through Sunday for the next three weeks.

Mary Chase’s “Harvey,” which debuted on Broadway 80 years ago, remains a staple of American theater, with its themes of kindness being just as relevant today.

“Harvey” centers on Elwood P. Dowd (TJ Bartlett), an eccentric who claims his best friend is a 6-foot rabbit named Harvey, much to the irritation of his sister Veta (Karen Gustafson) and niece Myrtle Mae (Candace Sapiel) who live with him. After Elwood ruins a party, Veta decides to commit him to a local sanitarium. 

Upon arriving at the sanitarium, Veta, who has been driven to the point of hysteria, is the one who is committed by Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Frank Thompson), because Elwood presents as perfectly reasonable. When the head of the sanitarium, Dr. William Chumley (Ryan Orlando), discovers the mistake, he makes it his mission to commit Elwood.

Also in the mix are Judge Gaffney (Barbara Plonski), the Dowd’s family lawyer who wants to sue the sanitarium for their treatment of Veta; nurse Ruth Kelly (Rebekah Bushey), who is sweet on Sanderson; the orderly Wilson (Eric Jordan), who acts as the sanitarium heavy; “aunt” Ethel (Terry Leavitt), a family friend of the Dowds; Chumley’s wife (Jenna Broder); and a cab driver (also Orlando) who plays a crucial role in the climax.

TJ Bartlett as Elwood P. Dowd in “M&D Playhouse’s production of “Harvey,” which opened Thursday, June 20, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse. (LISA DUFAULT PHOTO)

That’s a lot of characters, and director Stacy Sand doesn’t always juggle them all successfully, with some scenes, particularly in the first act, feeling flat and listless. This is most obvious in the scenes involving the judge and Chumley’s wife. These pacing issues get smoothed out by the second act, as the pursuit of Elwood results in an increasingly harried Chumley and frustrated Wilson.

James Stewart famously played Elwood in a 1950 film, so the temptation for any actor playing the role is to emulate that performance. Bartlett’s speech patterns recall Stewart’s without becoming an outright impression.

From left: Karen Gustafson, Candace Sapiel and Terry Leavitt in M&D Playhouse’s production of “Harvey,” which opened Thursday, June 20, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse. (LISA DUFAULT PHOTO)

Elwood, who frequents bars and makes friends everywhere he goes, exudes warmth and is “oh so pleasant.” Bartlett perfectly embodies this quality, and it’s easy to see why everyone would be charmed by Elwood.

Gustafson, who first played Veta as a senior in high school 49 years ago, is consistently funny as a woman pushed to the brink of her sanity. Importantly though, she never makes Veta cruel in her desire to commit Elwood. Gustafson is able to capture Veta’s love for her brother.

Orlando immediately earns laughs as Chumley with his eyes deviously darting around. In the second act, Orlando gives Chumley a manic energy after he spends an evening with Elwood and Harvey.

Jordan makes every moment on stage count and finds laughs where there weren’t any. As with any good supporting actor, he makes the performances of everyone around him better.

Thompson, at times, does too much mugging in a way that feels out of character, but, like Jordan, is a strong supporting performer who has solid comedic timing and chemistry with his fellow actors.

From left: Frank Thompson, Ryan Orlando and Rebekah Bushey in M&D Playhouse’s production of “Harvey,” which opened Thursday, June 20, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse. (LISA DUFAULT PHOTO)

“Harvey” makes a case for kindness over cleverness. Elwood is seen as a kook, but seems more sane than many of the characters around him, which is an indictment of everything society says we are supposed to value. M&D’s production exemplifies these themes well.

On balance, this is a charming production that is carried by several laugh-out-loud funny performances.

For more information or tickets, go to mdplayhouse.com or call (603) 733-5275.