Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey” is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a man with effervescent courtesy who has a 6-foot, 31/2-inch invisible rabbit named Harvey as a best friend. Elwood’s sister Veta is concerned the rabbit will interfere with her life as a socialite and thinks if she commits Elwood to a mental institution her problems will be solved. Instead, a comedy of errors quickly ensues.
Written to bring laughter to war-torn America, the play took Chase two years to write. She rewrote it 50 times before submitting it to New York producer Brock Pemberton, who accepted it immediately.
It opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 1944 and ran for 41/2 years at the 48th Street Theatre. It played for a total of 1,755 performances, making it one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history.
“Harvey” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945, beating out Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” It’s interesting to note that Chase’s nonconforming satire and William’s memory play both explore what society considers to be mental illness — “Harvey” with wit and whimsy, “The Glass Menagerie” with pain and melancholy.
Probably best known for the 1950 film adaptation that starred James Stewart, this play has been charming audiences for decades. Bayou Playhouse will open its version Friday, Feb. 27, directed by Dane Rhodes. This production also celebrates the company’s producing artistic director Perry Martin’s return to the stage after 27 years.
Martin started Bayou Playhouse after Katrina. The now-successful regional theater sits over the water in historic Lockport, a one-hour drive from downtown New Orleans.
“In the past 71/2 years since we started, more than 35,000 people have seen our plays,” Martin said. “We are proud of the fact that out of that number, 6,500 had never seen live theater before.”
Martin has been sight-impaired since the age of 17, but it’s never hindered him. He’s directed and produced more than 80 theatrical productions, including the world premieres of “Earl Long in Purgatory” and “Confederacy of Dunces.”
He’s also produced several off-Broadway shows, including “The Kingfish,” starring John “Spud” McConnell.
Martin, a native of Galliano, began his theater career as an actor and often performed at the old Thibodaux Playhouse. It was there he performed his last role, and that role was Elwood P. Dowd. So when the opportunity to reprise the character came along, Martin wanted to give it a try.
“This is a way for me to revisit my history,” Martin said. “It is one of my favorite plays and certainly one of my favorite roles.
“Elwood’s personality is so similar to mine. I am incredibly nervous but thrilled to do it because I feel so at home in the role.”
Rhodes is excited about directing Martin and agrees that the play is well-suited to his longtime friend’s personality.
“Perry’s directed me more than a dozen times, and we are family. If he had asked me to direct him in a stage adaptation of ‘Tootsie,’ I would have done it because he’s my brother. This has been so much fun.”
Because Martin’s character Elwood is the only one who can see Harvey, the company’s managing director, Cindy Griffin, jokes: “Perry is very visually impaired, so the staff at the Bayou Playhouse is having great fun with the fact that this is the first time Perry can see something that no one else can.”
Joining Martin on stage are playhouse regulars Travis Resor, Jacob Miller, Sara Jane Goodrum, Camille Griffin and Thibodaux Playhouse president, Roger Hernandez and his wife, Daphne.
In addition, professional actors James Wright and Casey McShain will make their Bayou Playhouse debuts.
“Harvey” is suitable for the entire family. Elwood’s gentle humor and serenity as he encounters life, even in its most banal moments, are some of the reasons that this play has stood the test of time.
As Elwood states: “Doctor, I wrestled with reality for 40 years, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.”