Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Humor of ‘Harvey’ endures in Oconto

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Machickanee Harvey_1486992079861.JPG

A guy walks into a bar with a big white rabbit that he talks to, and this rabbit talks back and tells him the future…

What sounds like a joke is a glimpse of a play, “Harvey,” one of the classics of American comedy.

Stuff in “Harvey” is sheer fun: A woman checking her rabbit-seeing brother into an asylum ends up in the funny farm instead. Conversations with the brother tend to end up with invitations to meet at a bar or over dinner. The rabbit seems ready to step out of invisibility.

The Machickanee Players community theater troupe is stirring smiles and laughs again with this merry venture from 1944 in three more performances through Feb. 19 in its Park Avenue Playhouse. 

***

Creative: Playwright – Mary Chase; director – Joe Noel; co-director – Patricia Lindsten; set – Chris Weis, Susan Groll; lighting and sound – Nat Madsen; stage manager – Emmy Reed

Cast: Elwood P. Dowd – Dean Reed; Myrtle Mae Simmons – Debi Wood; Veta Louise Simmons – Susan Groll; Ruth Kelly, R.N. – Breanna Gusick; Lyman Sanderson, M.D. – David Woosencraft; Duane Wilson – Chris Weis; William R. Chumley, M.D. – Russ Johnson; Judge Omar Gaffney – Tom Dobbins; Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet – Tammie McCarthy; Betty Chumley – Kay Johnson; E.J. Lofgren – Joe Noel; Miss Johnson – Emmy Reed

Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Feb. 17, 6 p.m. Feb. 18 (dinner show), 1:30 p.m. Feb. 19 (dessert show)

Info: themachickaneeplayers.org

***

This production has three notable elements.

+ The guy with the rabbit, Elwood P. Dowd, is a mild-mannered character. If somebody screamed “FIRE!” Elwood would calmly look around, stand up, put on his coat and hat, and make his way to the nearest exit – insisting that his 6-foot-5½ rabbit friend named Harvey be first through the door. Mild. Dean Reed, playing Elwood, is that mild – plus. His Elwood is soft-spoken and takes his time saying every word. Mild mild.

+ Elwood’s sister, Veta Louise Simmons, is excitable. Make that EXCITABLE. That’s partly because Elwood and his rabbit that most people can’t see have wrecked her society-minded life and that of her marriageable daughter. Susan Groll, playing Veta Louise, is exceptionally good at the role. Wood lights up this production – and could do so in any production. She puts on Veta Louise’s airs and then unravels over and over as Veta Louise gets deeper and deeper into fixes caused by Elwood. Groll is dynamic.

+ The set created by Chris Weis and Susan Groll (both who also have parts in the play) is nifty. The space is tight – about the size of a living room. The set has two faces. One is the Dowd home library – fireplace mantle with a portrait in the rear, bookshelf to one side, a table and a few chairs around and a general impression of refinement. The other face is on the flip side of the walls – the all-white reception area of the funny farm, called Chumley’s Rest, with an entry door, an office door and, in the rear, French doors leading to where Myrtle Mae ends up in an imagined, hilarious wrestling match over clothes with a male attendant.

Led by director Joe Noel, who also has a small but crucial part near the end, the cast milks the quirkiness of the play. That includes a budding romance between a doctor (David Woosencraft) and a nurse (Breanna Gusick) and the gruff attendant Wilson (Chris Weis) taking to Veta Louise’s yearning daughter (Debi Wood).

My favorite part of the play – the quirkiest of the quirky – is the bit with Wilson looking up the definition of “pooka” (what Harvey is) in a dictionary and, reading aloud, saying what the dictionary leads him to say: “And how are you, Mr. Wilson?”

Side note: Jesse White played Wilson on Broadway and in the movie. He later became Maytag’s Loneliest Repairman, and a promotional gig brought him to Green Bay in 1978 that led to me doing an interview with him. White told how Jimmy Stewart, who starred in “Harvey,” led him into the lucrative Maytag role, including the trademark Stewart drawl, “Waaalll, ah, ah, geez…”

That’s beside the point. The Machickanee Players has a nice community theater production going.

NEXT: “The Odd Couple” (female version), May 12-21.

THE VENUE: Park Avenue Playhouse is located at 408 Park Ave. in Oconto. According to rootsweb.ancestry.com, the building was originally St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, built in 1869. It is of Greek revival architecture style. According to rootsweb.ancestry.com, the building became St. Mark’s Guild Hall when a stone church was built on the corner to the south in 1900. The stone building was razed in the 1990s. The wood-frame building was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1985. The hall building was purchased by Jim Nerenhausen of Neroco Engineering and Manufacturing of Oconto and gifted to the Machickanee Players. The interior includes a raised stage, a wooden floor seating area with tables for eight and a capacity (for this show) of around 80. On the edges of the hall are a control room, box office, coat room, concessions window and doorway to rest rooms. The 12-foot-high Roman-arch windows that perhaps once held stained glass, are decoratively covered. A long-term fundraising effort is under way to renovate the building.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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