Mary Chase, the playwright who created a six-foot-tall white rabbit named Harvey, not only won a Pulitzer Prize for it but for the past 60 years has been cheered by audiences who accepted and identified with the situation.
She skillfully tapped into generations of beliefs that a rabbit’s foot is good luck, that a white rabbit can lead Alice and us to fantastic adventures and that a giddy or foolish person is “hare-brained.”
With this background, we eagerly believe that Elwood P. Dowd, played at North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck by Matthew Orr as an affable, ingratiating fellow, has as his best friend an imaginary rabbit, even though his niece, nicely acted by Jessica Raven, describes him as “the biggest screwball in town.”
Of course, theater people — actors and audiences alike — are accustomed to seeing people and things that aren’t there. In Noel Coward’s popular “Blithe Spirit,” we howl when the leading man sees and talks to his deceased wife, and in “Macbeth,” we gasp when the murdered Banquo appears.
Elwood does not mind that people fail to see and appreciate Harvey, but his sister Veta, played by Beverly Gregory with a touching comic vulnerability, minds very much and endeavors to get him committed to a sanitarium. The doctors (two accomplished leading men, Jim Navarre and Wade Karlin), however, are understandably dubious about the rabbit and proceed to lock her up instead of Elwood.
This farcical turn of events demands an urgency the production sometimes lacks. Lines that appear innocuous or commonplace need the same investment of vitality and purpose as life-threatening tragedy. Lisa Dabrowski, as the sanitarium’s nurse, retains an honesty along with the zaniness of her situation, and both Caroline Ciochetto and Susan Hedges are adept at mixing sincerity and silliness.
Kevin Monsell as the taxi driver rewards us toward the end of the play with a truthful performance that makes us wish he’d been on all along.
The director Alan Stewart, who recently staged “The Incorruptibles” by Michael Hollinger with unusual inventiveness and ingenuity, again demonstrates that he knows how to bring a script to life. The same can be said of the producer, Deanna Andes, who has mastered the maze-like challenge of turning the printed page into a glowing, attractive, living thing for our pleasure, our great pleasure.
At the end of the play when the doctors, and Veta, have given up trying to change Elwood, he triumphantly says, “I have wrestled with reality and I finally got the better of it!”
It’s up to us, the audience, to decide who is more dangerous to society: the easy-going dreamer with a vivid imagination or the people who want him to conform to the accepted version of society.
North Fork Community Theatre
Old Sound Avenue, Mattituck
Performances continue Oct. 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, 29 and 30. For tickets, call 298-6328 or visit nfct.com.