Mary Chase had a drinking problem. The journalist turned playwright even founded a charitable organization to help others who also struggled with thirsty demons similar. In spite of her sensitivity to the dipsomania, Chase always rejected the idea that her immensely popular play, Harvey, currently onstage at Theatre Memphis, was essentially the story of a happy-go-lucky alcoholic who spends his days imbibing strong spirits and conversing with an invisible rabbit-like character from Irish folklore.
"Harvey turns out to be somewhat of a religious experience for the audience, which is why it works," she once explained, correcting an interviewer who asked if Elwood P. Dowd's non-stop drinking was shocking in its day. But 70 years on, with so much of its charm lost to changing attitudes about gender depiction, mental health, and addiction, it's practically impossible to imagine how Chase's slight comedy could have ever snatched the Pulitzer Prize for drama from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. If any divine spark ever truly existed it's long gone and the empty shell that's been left behind is as ceaselessly pleasant as the play's pickled protagonist but not half as convincing.
Here's the nut: In a crazy mixed-up world full of crazy mixed-up people with crazy mixed-up dreams, Elwood P. Dowd is the only person who isn't completely horrible. He's a handful, mind you. And like some strange literary love-child made by a coupling of Ayn Rand and Gabriel Garcίa Márquez (with just a dash of Raymond Carver), he's dropped out of regular society, retreating into a radical, almost magical, civility. Self-interested relatives want to commit the harmless rabbit-seeing wino in order to seize control of the family's assets. The only problem: Nobody can catch that wascally Elwood, and over the course of the play, it becomes difficult to know who is and isn't "normal."
Harvey's deadlier secondary conflicts are mostly ginned up by boy-crazed women and the strong men who love to pat their bottoms. To that end, the show is either a minefield for modern sensibilities or a magnet for the hopelessly out-of-touch. Whatever it may be, and for whatever it's worth, Theatre Memphis has delivered a handsome production stocked with top-notch performers like Ann Sharp and Jason Spitzer.
Harvey is at Theatre Memphis through May 11th.
Although he's best known locally for films like Blue Citrus Hearts and the documentary This is What Love in Action Looks Like, Memphis artist Morgan Jon Fox entered into creative life as a playwright. For Fox, it all began when an important high-school teacher took him aside and told him he was wasting a lot of time and talent just being an angry punk when he could "take it upstairs." Accordingly, much of Fox's earliest work felt like public therapy, and it wasn't all ready for prime time. In terms of helping an already precocious artist hone his narrative skills and develop a unique point of view, they were a smashing success. With Claws (A Cycle of Shorter Plays), Fox has returned to his live-performance roots and teamed with a cadre of aspiring playwrights at decidedly different points in their artistic development. The result is a mixed bag that is sometimes delightful and sometimes difficult to watch.
Fox has clearly grown both as writer and director. His claustrophobic comedy Ann Coulter and Dan Savage in an Elevator On Its Way to Hell is exactly what it sounds like, and perfectly acted by an understated Drew Smith and an overstated Savannah Bearden, who pitches an emotional breakdown to beat all other emotional breakdowns. But it's Claws, an often-hilarious experiment in personal inventories that gives this night of flash theater its teeth.
Missed Connections by Matt Bowsher is an undeveloped story about a young gay man who kills himself because his parents are unsupportive. Chad White's @Michael&Division is also undercooked, but the play's yearning song cycle about a young man who becomes obsessed with an older man is beautifully sung by the author and evolves into a sweet-edged comedy thanks to a disarmingly candid performance by Bill Baker.
Manhattan Wavepool, written and directed by frequent Flyer contributor Eileen Townsend, is an exciting and very funny multimedia experiment that uses carefully deployed gibberish and a cleverly crafted slide show to rip apart the jargon of modern business and life among the upwardly mobile.