Every year Pendragon Theatre, our Saranac Lake live theatre company, chooses a comedy as one element of their summer art offerings. The theme this year (they choose a theme every year) is one close to my heart: that of "Dreams." Then they choose several plays which fit the theme, creating a lineup which includes at least one comedy, drama, and musical each year.
When I found out they were doing Harvey, the Pulitzer prize winning play of 1945, I was thrilled. It's a favorite, focusing on the ways we decide, for ourselves, what to believe in, and how it shapes our lives.
The play's author, Mary Chase, drew from Irish folklore about a creature known as a pooka. This is a nature spirit which can assume the form of different animals. She used this inspiration to create her own version: the character of Harvey, an over-six-foot tall white rabbit. (The actors who interact with Harvey always aim their gaze upwards.)
While having only the best of intentions, Harvey does not find his presence is always welcome. Some of the other characters worry because they can't see him, while others seem to be concerned... because they can.
Harvey - from stage to screen to stage
The original play had its Broadway premiere in November of 1944 and ran for over four years and 1,775 performances. It won the Pulitzer for drama in 1945 and has been continually popular ever since. Further exposure came from the 1950 movie starring two actors reprising their roles in the play at some point in its run; James Stewart as lead character Elwood P. Dowd, the Man with the Rabbit, and Josephine Hull as his exasperated and affectionate sister, Veta.
Veta is torn between her family obligations. She loves Elwood for his generous nature, especially since he inherited the house they all live in, but also feels the need to get her daughter properly introduced to marriageable young men. The family's reputation is on shaky ground while Elwood has such a problematical Imaginary Friend.
The solution to this dilemma is what Veta seeks by enlisting professional help. Since this is a comedy, the doctors and staff at the local sanitarium are something less than professional. All of their attempts to address the Elwood problem only creates further, and hilarious, problems for Veta.
Throughout, it is Harvey who is the focus of everyone's concerns, whether they believe in his presence, or not. And this State of Belief changes for many characters throughout the play.
There are two settings for the play; the Dowd family library room, and the office of Chumley's Rest, the local treatment center for mental illness. The Pendragon set designer created a space which doubles as both, with minimal rearranging between scenes. Draped doorways allow the actor playing Elwood to hold aside a curtain or lift a bit of scenery to allow easy (and visible) access for his taller companion.
Additional plays in the Summer Season
The other plays in this season were all connected with dreams, or seemed to be based upon dream states. The Little Prince is about an aviator befriended by an unearthly visitor. Red is about the celebrated abstract artist Mark Rothko. Man of La Mancha is about an impossible dream; at least, that is where the famous song comes from. Death of a Salesman, while a serious drama, is about the American Dream, and one family's pursuit of it.
A Little Pendragon Theatre History
Of all the towns in all the Adirondacks, Saranac Lake was the right town for Pendragon Theatre to walk into. In 1980 the group had formed to create productions by Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas, already showing a clear reverence for the classics. Now, the Theatre draws from a lively local talent pool that mixes professional, academic, and passionate amateur talent, for both onstage and behind the scenes duties.
Pendragon is now a multi-media community center, with rotating displays in the lobby/gallery area, a program of performances in local schools, and a full May to October calendar. In December, they always feature a family holiday favorite. This year, it's a live radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life. There are children's plays, cabaret and music performances, and on October 30th of this year, something spooky called Ghost Tales.
Each January an open casting call goes out, allowing anyone to try out for roles which call to them, or see if they could lend a talented hand backstage. The pivotal role of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey was played by Jon Liebtrau, proud member of Actor's Equity Association and SAG/AFTRA, who has performed professionally on stages from NYC to California. The role of his sister, Veta, was played by a popular local actress who is also a real estate agent.
So we never know who we might see onstage. Or where the talent might be lurking in the surrounding towns. It's part of Saranac Lake's dedication to the arts that provides such a large pool of talent to draw from.
This was a marvelous production, with every bit of the charm and bustle the play demands. All of the actors fully embraced the wonderful concept of sharing the stage with an invisible giant rabbit. Harvey even got his own paragraph in the program, listing him as Harvey (Himself) and describing some of the productions he's been involved in.
On every opening night, there is a reception afterwards, which is a wonderful chance to mingle. This night, we have chosen a performance which features a "Talk Back," where the people who brought the play to life appear afterwards to discuss the challenges and choices which led to this particular production. When they opened the floor, I had the first question: "Did you ever see Harvey?" They must have anticipated this, because the instant response, from the director, was, "Did you?" (For the record, my answer was, "Yes!")
By the end of the play, audiences can wonder, "Did I really see the rabbit?" In fact, I'm always disappointed if I don't. After all, a famous line in the play made it into the movie, and was nominated as part of the project known as AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes. It came from Elwood P. Dowd: "Well, I've wrestled with reality for thirty five years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it."
See for Yourself
If you are interested in attending a Pendragon performance, you might want to make plans early... you can save a little on the ticket admission that way, and you also make sure you can get in on your preferred night. There's graduated seating for a little over one hundred people, which creates a wonderful atmosphere and a great view of the stage for everyone.
One of the charms of a Saranac Lake "evening at the theatre" is how enjoyably it can be constructed. Lodging is plentiful on Lake Flower, within easy walking distance of downtown dining, and then there's Pendragon Theatre comfortably tucked in between. All along the shores of lovely Lake Flower.