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Imagination makes 'Harvey' a believable show

Imagination makes 'Harvey' a believable show
Margaret Condo as Veta Louise Simmons and James Raymond as Dr. Saunderson in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "Harvey." (Photo by John Cholod)

A boozing imaginary friend has captured the imagination of the folks involved in mounting Laurel Mill Playhouse's current run of "Harvey," written by American playwright Mary Chase.

In 1944, the title character in "Harvey" appeared on Broadway for the first time. Six years later, after almost 1,800 performances, the Pulitzer-winning play was adapted to a film with the same name, starring James Stewart.

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Directed here by Clara Shaffer and produced by Maureen Rogers, of Laurel, the play's storyline is surreal — after all, who could possibly believe in the existence of an invisible and life-sized,anthropomorphic rabbit?

Shaffer and her design team and cast members must believe, forthey've combined their considerable talents to breathe life into the irrepressible bunny (actually a pooka based in Celticfolklore) as he prowls the confines of the little theater on Main Street.

Playhouse scenic designer and Laurel resident James Raymond, aided by assistant scenic designer Lindsay Maiorano and Shaffer and cast, has crafted a lovely human habitat for the whimsical creature.

The handsomely appointed set (with lighting designed by T.J. Lukacsina, of Laurel, and sound designed by Larry Simmons) features revolving walls that accommodate fast scene changes between two contrasting locales: Elwood Dowd's plush library and the suitably anesthetic Chumley's Restsanitarium.

Winning costumes (assembled by the cast) and Jeff Maurer's strikebreaking's painting (appearing in Act 2) lend even more visual treats.

Shaffer, who is making her metro-area directing debut, has cast a tight ensemble of almost a dozen able actors.

In his first appearance with the Playhouse, Tom Howley plays Elwood Dowd, an eccentric but affable gentleman who is seldom seen without his drinking buddy and companion (the unseen Harvey).

But Elwood's socialite sister, Veta Simmons (breathlessly portrayed by Margaret Condon), finds her brother's odd behavior embarrassing. Aspiring to launch her daughter Myrtle Mae (played by Laurel resident Heather Warren)into society, Veta wants Elwood and Harvey out of sight.

Elwood, of course, introduces Harvey to everyone he meets,including veteran actress Rogers as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet — a delightful high society matron whose subtle physical reactions hint at much more than meets the eye.(Perhaps she senses that the invisible Harvey may be real.)

Regardless of whether Elwood is a contagious lunatic or a visionary, he is an embarrassment to Veta and Myrtle Mae; and Veta conspires to commit her brother to a psychiatric hospital.

When charismatic young psychiatrist Dr. Sanderson, played by Raymond, mistakenly admits Veta instead of Elwood to the sanitarium, a lively comedy of errors must follow.

Enter the remaining cast members: Laurel residents Ron Ableand Anne Hull as Wilson and Betty Chumley; and MerryRose Howley as Nurse Kelly,Jon Marget as Judge Omar Gaffney,Larry Simmons as E.J. Lofgren and GeneValendo as Dr. William Chumley.

All of Shaffer's cast members present full-bodied characterizations.

Raymond and Howley (as Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly) exude charming chemistry as they wage a battle of the sexes while denying their growing attraction to one another.

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As Mrs. Chumley, Hull is captivating, particularly in her scene with Elwood. And Valendo makes a passionate and convincing Dr. Chumley.

Warren and Able as Myrtle Mae and Wilson also warrant special mention for creating believable sexual tension, as the script warrants,despite looking mismatched (he is much older). AndMarget as Judge Gaffney delivers a strong performance.

Simmons, who appears briefly in a small role as a cab driver,lucks out by owning one of the funniest lines in the play when he comments profoundly on "normal" people in a statement that contains adult language.

Although many of the show's sweetest moments can be credited to Howley's endearing performance as Elwood, and Condon's exceptional role as Veta, the standout actor in "Harvey"has to be Harvey.

Expert at opening and closing doors and an ace at taking curtain calls, the bunny leaves no doubt that he is thriving unseen at 508 MainSt., all "six-foot, three-and-one-half-inches" of him.

Gently humorous and skillfully designed and directed,Shaffer's "Harvey" ends quite kindly and is appropriate for all ages.

"Harvey" continues through March 8, Fridays andSaturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinee performances on March 1 and March 8 at2 p.m. General admission is $20. Students 18 andunder, active duty militaryand seniors 65 and over pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press2, or buy tickets online atlaurelmillplayhouse.org.

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