With 'Harvey,' touring troupe brings professional acting to Ellicott City


Professional theater returns after a three-year hiatus to Ellicott City today, when a traveling acting company performs the comedy "Harvey" for two weekends at the Little Theatre on the Corner.

Actors Company Theatre (ACT) will present the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase at the theater at Main Street and Columbia Pike.

The Glen Burnie-based company, just over a year old, has chosen a location that has more history than most dramatic venues in the area.

The 110-seat theater, originally called the Ellicott Theater, was built in 1940 to show movies after an April fire destroyed Berger's Grocery and Der Wong's Laundry.

It was later converted into a disco in the 1970s and became the home for Onstage Productions from 1982 to 1991.

The Ashling Theatre Center showed a strong interest in the location in 1992 before moving to Fells Point.

Since February 1993, the lobby of the theater has served as the showroom for Lewis & Carroll's Comics & Cards.

The theater has been used by musicians and high school students for performances.

"Harvey" is led by producer Gary Wheeler and director John Strawbridge, both of whom helped establish ACT. This will be the third production for the company.

"The design of the group is a traveling company. We are looking for many venues to play at," said Mr. Wheeler, who has a positive assessment of the theater.

"We like it. It's certainly cozy. The building is live. It picks up anything," Mr. Wheeler said.

Despite its many reincarnations, Little Theatre on the Corner retains the look of a Gothic cinema: narrow, long and with a high ceiling.

"The staging is more challenging," said John Strawbridge, co-founder of ACT and director, who has planned a two-tiered stage for the performance.

The production will bear a resemblance to the 1950 movie, which featured Jimmy Stewart and garnered an Academy Award for Josephine Hull as Veta Louise.

Mr. Wheeler will play Elwood P. Dowd, the genial and mild-mannered middle-aged man whose only offense is befriending an invisible, life-sized rabbit.

"It's really more about the other characters and their reactions as whether the rabbit exists. The changes occur in the people he's around," said Mr. Strawbridge.

The play begins with the discovery by Veta Louise, Elwood's sister, and Myrtle Mae, his niece, that their attempts at social climbing were stymied by Elwood, who introduced Harvey to members of a Wednesday social club.

They intend to have him committed at Chumley's Rest, a sanitarium, which will allow them to manage his estate when he is declared mentally incompetent.

It is a comedy of mistaken identity, magic, flux and harmony.

One theme concerns the benefits of accepting the off-beat.

Mr. Wheeler, a photographer and member of the Screen Actors Guild, can be seen in a commercial for the Pennsylvania Lottery.

He soon will appear in the Baltimore area for a WJZ-TV commercial.

He finds his work in ACT a balance between two forms of acting.

"When you're doing film work, there is no direct interacting with the audience," Mr. Wheeler said.

"In theater, you share with the audience, establishing action and carrying it from one point to another. In film, it's start, stop, go back, start, stop, go back.

"I enjoy both. But most people who are involved in acting would prefer theater work. It's more satisfying," he said.

Mr. Strawbridge is an associate casting director for Pat Moran Casting in Baltimore and a staff technician for the theater at Catonsville Community College.

He helped cast John Waters' latest feature film, "Serial Mom."

"We've ended up with an extremely eclectic cast. I think we have a cast that is representative of most styles of acting," said Mr. Strawbridge.

He said some of the actors performed in dinner theater musicals and some are university trained.

They work during the day as an architect, homemaker, teacher )) and Department of Corrections counselor, he said.

"And at 5 p.m., they jump in their cars and race to get here," Mr. Strawbridge said.

The Actors Company Theatre will present "Harvey" at 8 p.m. today, tomorrow, April 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. April 17 and 24 at The Little Theatre on the Corner, 8217 Main Street, Ellicott City.

Tickets for Fridays and Saturdays are $10, $8 for seniors and students. Sunday tickets are $8, $6 for seniors and students. Group discounts are available.

& Information: 760-5800.

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