YCDS’s Harvey: One Giant Rabbit and a Whole Lot of Questions
With Rabbi Yosef Blau’s halakhic approval on the record, anticipation for the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society’s production of Harvey, directed by Lin Snider, has spread amongst the student body.
Written in 1944 by American playwright Mary Chase and set in the 1940s, Harvey focuses on Elwood P. Dowd (David Cutler) and his presumably imaginary 6-foot tall rabbit friend, Harvey. Vernon Dowd (Laivi Malamut-Salvaggio), Elwood’s brother, tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium when living with him and the enigmatic Harvey interferes with Vernon’s plan to find a suitable wife for his son Marvin (Herschel Siegel). Upon arriving at the sanitarium, however, comedic mistake follows comedic mistake as Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Matthew Trautman), an assistant at the sanitarium, commits Vernon instead, leading to a wild goose chase around the town searching for Elwood.
Chase originally wrote characters such as Vernon and Marvin as women; Veta, Elwood’s sister and Myrtle Mae, Veta’s daughter. The decision to rewrite these and other characters as men—matching the all-male members of YCDS—while noticeable even for those who have never heard of Harvey before, does not seem to detract from the play or the messages delineated throughout. In fact, watching men stress and struggle over marriage in a way most often attributed to women was refreshing. These somewhat original characters and their relationships in the play blend seamlessly with the script and storyline.
Harvey leaves the audience with many questions: How do we define normal? Do we value fitting in over genuine kindness? How do we properly address the treatment of mental illness? Does Harvey really exist? When can one put their own happiness above that of a loved one? Aside from the presence of these themes in the plot and script of the play, these questions are skillfully portrayed by the meticulous and genuine acting of YCDS’s talented cast.
While every member of the cast and crew deserves a round of applause for their tireless efforts in producing a theatrical production, the characters of Vernon Dowd, played by Laivi Malamut-Salvaggio, and Dr. Julian Chumley—the director of the sanitarium— played by Jason Siev, brought the themes and questions inherent in the written words of Harvey to life on the Schottenstein stage.
Throughout the play, Vernon struggles to choose the proper course of action for both Elwood and his son Marvin. Living with Harvey—imaginary or not—leaves Elwood the subject of ridicule, and Vernon and Marvin social outcasts, forcing Vernon to choose between the Elwood he knows and loves and his and his son’s social status. In every scene and with every line, Malamut-Salvaggio presents this dilemma, compelling the audience to weigh the options themselves.
Siev’s depiction of Dr. Chumley causes the audience to question the existence of Harvey. When Dr. Chumley ventures out in search of Elwood, he returns disheveled and shaken, seeing Harvey as a real-life rabbit. Siev’s ability to become the proper, medically trained psychiatrist, as well as depict the mental chaos which ensues once Dr. Chumley begins to question Harvey’s imaginative nature, greatly contributes to the larger themes portrayed during the performance.
With great actors comes a great responsibility for equally laudable stagecraft. Having said that, YCDS seems to have missed the mark in this regard. Harvey’s scenes take place in either the Dowds’ home or Dr. Chumley’s sanitarium. When in the Dowd’s home, the audience feels transported to a 1940s living room, complete with a glowing fireplace and black-and-white portrait. Similarly, the sanitarium elicits a realistic cold clinical feeling, with its bland walls and bleak desk and chairs. The transition between the two, which requires the lowering of multiple curtains and the sliding of fake doorways, dragged on between scenes. The lack of full curtains in the Schottenstein Theatre does not help, as the audience can clearly hear and see the movement of the stage crew as they turn the Dowd’s living room into Dr. Chumley’s office. While Snider attempted to lessen the dead time by inserting comedic instrument-free musical interludes, the multiple minute-or-so periods of darkness filled with the noise of shuffling feet and scraping furniture left something to be desired of the set design.
Despite these technical difficulties, YCDS’s Harvey leaves the audience impressed with authentic acting and pondering the questions and topics touched on by the plot and script. This serious yet comedic production offers a unique opportunity to experience a great work of American playwriting, as well as the talented efforts of the entire cast and crew.