Bay Theatre Company brings big magic to its small stage in its production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy "Harvey." A rotating set moves action back and forth between the Dowd family home and the waiting room of Chumley's Rest Sanitarium, where the audience just might sense the presence of an invisible, 6-foot-tall rabbit on stage.
For the first time in its eight-year history, Bay Theatre is presenting a family show during the holiday season. In the program notes, director Rick Wade notes that when author Mary Chase "wrote this during World War II, she was reminding us that letting our fantasies and dreams take hold can make anxieties more bearable."
"It was a perfect message for America after the one-two punch of the Depression and the war, and not a bad one at all for our time 60 years later," he writes.
The plot centers on wealthy, affable, heavy-drinking Elwood P. Dowd (portrayed memorably by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 film version), his sister Veta and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, who live together in the family home.
Veta is intent on finding a husband for Myrtle Mae - a goal complicated by Elwood's eccentric behavior as he insists on introducing Harvey, the invisible rabbit, to guests at their home. At her wit's end, Veta decides to have Elwood committed to spare Myrtle Mae continued embarrassment and spinsterhood.
When Veta tries to have her brother committed, Dr. Chumley's assistant, Dr. Sanderson, tries to commit Veta instead, a mistake that results in an often hilarious comedy of errors.
Director Wade draws top-notch performances from the cast, who inhabit the intimate set without ever creating a jammed feeling.
Scene changes are flawless between the Dowd home and the asylum, "Chumley's Rest." Set designer Ken Sheats designed the rotating convertible set with sliding pocket doors and working doors for exits and entrances of real - and invisible - characters.
Bay's attention to detail extends to the portrait of Elwood and Harvey, which was created by nationally known Annapolis portrait artist Ann Munro Wood.
The charm of "Harvey" rests almost entirely on the actor who plays Elwood, and in Jim Chance, Bay Theatre hits near-perfection. Chance wins the audience immediately with his warm smile, gentle innocence and courtly manners. Wanting only cheerful companionship at his favorite bars, Chance's Elwood cherishes best friend Harvey, whose presence he acknowledges so naturally that the audience senses him, too.
Lucinda Merry-Browne as the social-climbing Veta shows adept comic timing, alternately hesitant and hysterical in dealing with her brother, and hugely funny when recounting her ordeal at the hands of rough sanitarium assistant Wilson (Joe Cronin), when she discovers the Elwood-Harvey portrait on the mantel, and when she demands that Judge Gaffney (Edd Miller) sue Chumley's Rest. Merry-Browne moves easily from energetic comedian to foil to concerned sister.
Skilled comedian Gene D'Alessandro provides laughs as Chumley, who descends from self-assured, pompous director with no tolerance for staff mistakes to a confused, self-doubting, disheveled wreck who longs only for a vacation.
Brandon McCoy plays young psychiatrist Sanderson with dedication and naivet?. His scenes with Eliza Bell's Nurse Kelly create a little romance as Bell manages to lift Kelly beyond what could have seemed a somewhat dated, subservient character.
As Myrtle Mae, Brianna Letourneau projects spunk and amusing sauciness around Cronin's Wilson that livens up a husband-seeking role that also could have seemed dated.
Sue Struve makes the most of her brief time onstage in the role of Mrs. Chumley, displaying great comic timing and skill at double takes as she tries to figure out who actually belongs inside the sanitarium.
Another actor with a big impact in a minor role is Lois DeVincent, who plays socialite Ethel Chauvenet, whose poise unravels upon being introduced to Harvey.
The 60-year old "Harvey" is always amusing and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, as it offers a gentle message that eccentricity is tolerable if not lovable, and that individuality should be cherished along with friendship wherever we find it. This is the perfect family show for the holidays, and it might even allow a glimpse of a clever rabbit.
If you go
"Harvey" continues Thursdays-Sundays through Jan. 9 at Bay Theatre, 275 West St., Annapolis. Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for seniors and students. Call 410-268-1333 or go to baytheatre.org.