Ron McGhee portrays Elwood P. Dowd, who befriends an invisible pooka shaped like a man-sized rabbit, in Theatre Albany's production of "Harvey." (April 2012)
ALBANY This Thursday, Ron McGhee will step into a role that is a favorite of many movie buffs, the lovable Elwood P. Dowd, a low-key average guy who befriended a magical and mischievous Irish creature known as a pooka that manifested itself into a 6-foot, 3 1/2-inch tall white rabbit named Harvey. The catch was no one but Dowd could see Harvey at all. The 1946 Broadway play written by Mary Chase became a hit movie in 1950 with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role of Dowd.
McGhee spoke with Jim Hendricks in a phone interview recently about what it is like to play a well-known character like Dowd, how he accidentally got before the footlights the first time and what he’s been doing to warm up for a play in which the namesake Harvey’s presence is felt, but never seen.
AH: You’ve got the main character in “Harvey.”
RM: Yes, I do. Elwood P. Dowd.
AH: How imposing is it to come after someone like Jimmy Stewart on that?
RM: I’m nervous, to say the least. But my friends say Mark Costello (Theatre Albany director) is guilty of type casting. They claim I’m quirky and unique, so they claim mark is just typecasting.
AH: That’s pretty good typecasting then.
RM: I think it has more to do with how odd Elwood P. is than how good Jimmy Stewart is.
AH: How are you going to play him? When you’ve got a character like that in a movie that’s a little bigger than life with the actor that’s playing it, how do you make that your own character?
RM: I’m particularly lucky ... you know, of course, Jimmy Stewart had an Academy Award-winning cast with him ... but I feel really lucky this time around taking this lead role because I’m sharing the stage with Theatre Albany’s most experienced veteran actors and actresses. This is really impressive. I’m looking at some of the names ... we’ve got Glen White, Joy Johnson, Kevin Armstrong — some of these people will have literally 20 or 30 Theatre Albany plays under their belts. When I came on stage and started reading the lines and doing the rehearsal, some of the jitters went away about the enormity of this character because I’m surrounded by extremely talented and experienced people and that has helped me tremendously. I’m really impressed with the cast that Mark has put together for this one.
Myrtle Mae Simmons — Kate Funk
Veta Louise Simmons — Joy Johnson
Elwood P. Dowd — Ron McGhee
Miss Johnson — Ashley Brown
Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet — Shelia Phillips
Ruth Kelly, R.N — Kelly Mullins
Duane Wilson — Lon McNeil
Lyman Sanderson, M.D — Kevin Armstrong
William Chumley, M.D — Glenn White
Betty Chumley — Silke Deeley
Judge Omar Gaffney — Stephen Syfrett
E. J. Lofgren — Ashley Brown
BEHIND THE SCENES
Mark Costello — director
Stephen G. Felmet — set design and
Laura Ruckel Johstono — lighting design
Ann Brim Streat — make up
AH: You have done some previous work with Theatre Albany.
RM: Yes, I have. I got involved with Theatre Albany when my youngest daughter, who I guess was around nine, wanted to try out for Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I took her down to audition and she would not get on stage. She was a little nervous. So I said if I get up on stage and try, will you get up? And she said, please, daddy. We both got up on stage and since she’s Japanese, she could not be Scout, but since I am not Japanese, Mark cast me as the sheriff in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I did not want that, I did not intend that, but I was stuck. I got on stage and I tried out and I thought I would be a bad role model to my daughter if I tried out for a part and then I said no.
AH: How many plays have you been in?
RM: Memory fails me ... four or five.
AH: How hard is it to act against — for lack of a better term — thin air? The pooka or whatever the name is for Harvey ... you’re going to have some one-sided discussions, I’m guessing, in the dialogue.
RM: Right. It pays to start talking to Harvey all day long. So I’ve actually been doing that. I take Harvey to work with me and I take Harvey with me nearly everywhere I go. So I’m sure there are people in Albany who already think there’s a crazy person walking around town. The best way to pull this off is to take Harvey with you wherever you go.
AH: You’ve actually probably got it a little better off than somebody, say, 15 or 20 years ago because you can always just put one of those little earbuds in your ear and they’ll just figure you’re talking on the phone to somebody these days.
RM: Now that you mention it, you can walk around Walmart anytime of the day and there are about 20 people looking like they’re talking to Harvey. You’re right about that.
AH: Used to we’d look for somebody to start taking ‘em off the streets, but now you don’t even notice it anymore.
RM: That’s exactly right. I don’t think Elwood would stick out too much in Walmart these days.
AH: You’ve done a little playwrighting yourself, haven’t you? You wrote the musical that the Lee County group did, “Monkey Business.”
RM: That’s very kind of you to mention that. That’s right. What a wonderful experience that was. And Lee County was kind enough to put that on. I thought it was very well done. And now the Rylander (Theatre in Americus) is thinking about picking that show up. And wouldn’t it be great to see it at the Rylander? I’ve been very pleased. And we’ve published a book. We just published a children’s book based on the characters in “Monkey Business” and you have it in the schools and libraries now. That was a real fun kind of addendum to that musical. I’m very happy about that.
AH: Now, your book is kind of like the Hardy Boys meet Scooby Doo, something like that?
RM: It’s a Southern little mystery , but with the characters Lloyd and Boyd. They’re the lead characters in the musical. We took them on a hunt for a monster up the Kinchafoonee Creek and the kids really seem to enjoy reading about the areas they know about ... the Flint River, Kinchafoonee, Webster County. That been a really fun thing, we think, for them. They seem to really enjoy that a lot.
AH: Are you working on a sequel? Weren’t you planning a series of books?
RM: That’s going to be a series. But Harvey’s keeping me pretty busy. We have a very tight rehearsal schedule, so even though I’ll follow on it as planned, I’ve got to tell you, there’s no time for anything these days but reading and memorizing lines. And I’ll be moving to Tokyo in September for a year, so my American writing is going to be put on hold for a little bit while I take the family over to Tokyo and spend a year over there.
AH: You’re about to do a good bit of global traveling.
RM: You’d think at my age it’d be slowing down, but it’s picking up.
AH: You work with the school system in Lee County. Are you taking a year’s sabbatical?
RM: I retired last year and now I am back part-time this year. ... Now this is a good time to take my daughter over to Japan for a little bit and get acquainted with the culture. But I’m working part-time in Lee County and I’m enjoying it very much.
AH: Takes a little of the pressure off.
RM: It does.
AH: Getting back to the play, how do you describe Dowd, the character that you’re playing?
RM: This is a classic American play. ... I was watching Jimmy Stewart do it and I’ve been reading online about the scenes of the play. Why’s this a classic American play? The character is just your average Joe. There’s really nothing special about Elwood before he met this white rabbit ... who can do essentially anything he wants, take him anywhere, make him as rich and famous as he wants. But this character stays a regular Joe. Good things happen to him, but he always stays true to himself. I just think that’s a feeling everybody likes about it. That’s a theme that everybody likes about this play. That’s what makes it a classic.
AH: I always felt a little sorry for his sister, though. She always got the short end of the stick in that.
RM: That’s a big scene. What is it like to live in a quirky family? The understanding and respect that you’ve got to feel when you have a family full of kooks. How does everybody get along in a situation when everybody’s quirky and crazy/ I think everybody laughs at all of these characters and everything that’s going on because there’s really nobody in the family that is really “normal.” Even the judge is eccentric.
AH: That’s something you notice in these older writings and plays. To me they’re a lot more character driven than what you see nowadays, where it all seems to be slapstick and gross-out comedy, blow up something bigger than they blew it up in the last episode.
RM: Right. This play, give or take a few set pieces, is all writing. It’s all clever, humorous, thought-provoking writing. It’s no wonder it won a Pulitzer. When you come in to see the show, you better be a lover of language. In the older days, I think people loved language. That’s why they love Shakespeare. That’s why they love a lot of plays that have sophisticated writing. When you come to see “Harvey,” you need to bring that love of language with you because it’s got a lot of hectic scenes going on, but this writing is tremendous.
AH: Anything you’d like to add?
RM: I just want to re-mention that the cast has some great chemistry here. Everyone has worked hard to meet the expectations that the audience is going to want to see in this play. It comes with a lot of knowledge, a lot of expectations. I see everybody in the cast trying to build that chemistry. I hope that shows up in the final product. ... Probably the last thing is how much we appreciate Mark Costello and the board of directors there. When you’re talking about homegrown theater, you’re talking about Theatre Albany. I think all the cast and I would agree that Mark is going the extra mile with his technical direction here. He’s really putting in a lot ... giving people individual mentoring with their roles.