Katie Speed, in a pink dress symbolizing her character’s young age, stands at stage right, complaining about her uncle. “But how do I know Uncle Elwood won’t come in and introduce Harvey to everybody?” she asks. For Katie’s character, Elwood is someone to be stigmatized because he is friends with a giant rabbit only he can see: Harvey.
Throughout September, the Footlight Club’s volunteer cast and crew performed Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy “Harvey” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The plot revolves around Elwood P. Dowd and the giant rabbit Harvey. His sister Veta, played by Carol Gallagher, wants to put him away in a sanitarium for the sake of her daughter and their reputation. Despite the concept of the sanitarium, the production team has succeeded in making “Harvey” progressive and understanding of families whose members have mental illness.
Kristin MacDougall, assistant producer, sat with me in a cluttered office to the side of Eliot Hall’s first floor. She believes “Harvey” is forward-thinking in terms of how Elwood is treated by his family. “[The play] does depict in a non-dramatic, non-melodramatic, way what family relationships can be when you have a person with a mental illness,” she explained. “Not every family, but there are lots of people who have a mental illness or quirk who are loved and cared for by their families. It’s not all bad.”
Zach Best, a large man whose bearing commands attention, was the director and a member of the set building team. He considers the show thought-provoking. In terms of the 1944 material that may seem awkward, he said: “We acknowledged collectively that this can be uncomfortable-feeling and let’s find ways that we can deliver the line, react to the line. Let’s make sure the other characters react in a way that we know that the audience knows the characters know it’s an uncomfortable line as well.”
The Footlight Club, housed in Jamaica Plain’s Eliot Hall since 1878, bills itself as America’s oldest community theater company. The club greets everyone with “Once More, You Are Heartily Welcome” printed in block letters on the inner door’s lintel.
Even with old material, “Harvey” is a surprisingly light comedy. Elwood is polite, and never really seems to realize how much his family despises Harvey. The visit to the sanitarium results in a ridiculous mix-up whose consequences are played for laughs. Like most comedies, it ends happily, with Veta’s acceptance of her brother.
Rodney Raftery, who played Elwood, explained that this type of role was different for him, since Elwood isn’t on stage to be funny, as in most comedic roles he’s done. “There are definitely comedic parts to it, but I think people are surprised that it also has a touching, sad side to it as well.”
Raftery also mentioned how difficult it was to talk to and react off an imaginary character. “I didn’t want him [Elwood] to be a buffoon or like a clown. He really has heart, and I wanted that to come through.”