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Theatre Albany takes on a Funny Bunny in ‘Harvey’

From left, Joy Johnson,  Kevin Armstrong and Kelly Mullins play a scene from Theatre Albany's production of the Pulitzer-prize winning comedy "Harvey" by Mary Chase during rehearsal April 5, 2012.

From left, Joy Johnson, Kevin Armstrong and Kelly Mullins play a scene from Theatre Albany's production of the Pulitzer-prize winning comedy "Harvey" by Mary Chase during rehearsal April 5, 2012.

— He’s no Easter bunny, but Harvey, a 6-foot, 3 1/2-inch white rabbit, seems an appropriate fit for the season.

“It’s a nice springy story,” Theatre Albany Director Mark Costello said of the play “Harvey” that the theater will be performing this week and next.

“Harvey” was a hit on Broadway in 1944, running until 1949 and earning playwright Mary Chase the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945. The year after it closed, “Harvey” hit the silver screen with Jimmy Stewart portraying easy-going, affable Elwood P. Dowd, an unremarkable man with a remarkable friend — a magical Irish creature known as a pooka that went by the name Harvey.

While pookas, according to lore, are shape-shifters that usually prefer the form of frightening horses, the mischievous Harvey was, like a Dowd, a more gentle soul, preferring the form of a man-sized white rabbit. The catch was Harvey was particular about who saw him and stayed invisible to everyone but Dowd.

'HARVEY' PLAY DATES

WHAT: “Harvey,” 1945 Pulitzer prize winning play by Mary Chase

WHO: Theatre Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. April 12-14 and 19-21; 2:30 p.m. April 15 and 22

WHERE: 514 Pine Ave.

TICKETS: $20, adults; $15, seniors; $10 students and active-duty military

CONTACT: Box office, (229) 439-7141

Costello said that when he was coming up with the plays for the current season, he was stymied on what comedy he wanted Theatre Albany to present.

“You read multitudes of scripts trying to come up with a season,” he said. “I just couldn’t find any comedies that I wanted to do.”

He turned his attention to “Harvey” when he noticed that the play was being considered for a return to Broadway. “I said, ‘You know, that’s always a crowd pleaser,’” he said.

In fact, the Broadway return is coming next month with Jim Parsons, best known for playing acerbic theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper in the television comedy “The Big bang Theory,” playing the role of Dowd.

Costello says he appreciates Parsons’ work, particularly when you consider the complex scientific terminology that “Big Bang” actors have to contend with. “He is amazing,” Costello said. “He makes me laugh, and he has a great ability to memorize the stuff he has to say.”

For the Albany performances, Costello turned to Ron McGhee, a recently retired Lee County teacher, to take on the role of Dowd.

McGhee, who is the focus of today’s “On Stage with ...” profile, quipped that he’s been typecast when it comes to quirky roles. “Every time he needs some physical comedy person, he seems to call me on the phone,” McGhee said in a recent interview.

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From left, Kevin Armstrong, Glenn White, Kelly Mullins and Silke Deeley play a scene from Theatre Albany's production of the Pulitzer-prize winning comedy "Harvey" by Mary Chase. (April 5, 2012)

The plot of the play revolves on the relationship between Dowd and the never-seen Harvey, and between Dowd and his sister, Veta, portrayed by Theatre Albany veteran Joy Johnson.

“She’s the one that’s just a nervous wreck the whole show,” Costello said. “He (Dowd) just takes life as it comes. Veta sets out to have him committed. She’s tired of him walking around and introducing Harvey to everybody and he’s the only one who sees Harvey.”

Through miscommunication and interruptions, the authorities get confused and think Veta is the one with delusions. “That just creates a lot of uproar in the whole scheme of things,” Costello said.

The cast includes Veta’s daughter, Myrtle Mae Simmons (Kate Funk); Miss Johnson (newcomer 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 (newcomer Silke Deeley); Judge Omar Gaffney (Stephen Syfrett), and E. J. Lofgren (also Ashley Brown). Stephen G. Felmet is in charges of set design and technical direction; Laura Ruckel Johstono, lighting design, and Ann Brim Streat, make up.

There are some differences between the movie and the play. For instance, Costello said, the relationship between the nurse and the young doctor is more filled out in the Stewart movie. But for the most part, the film and play are pretty true to each other.

“Even the movie had some of the cast members of the play,” he noted.

While the play is set in three acts, the third act is so brief that he has incorporated it into the second act, Costello said. The acts are set in the sister’s home and the doctor’s office.

Asked whether the writing was better with some of the older plays like “Harvey,” Costello allowed that while there have been some bright spots, such as the Neil Simon comedies, many today have become “theme park musicals.”

“It’s been a long time since there’s been a Broadway comedy where you say, ‘Oh, yeah,’” he said. “I think that’s just a sad commentary.”

Plays like “Harvey” and the Gary Grant classic “Arsenic and Old Lace” “stand the test of time,” he said. “They’re still universal and funny. They’re not dated. The characters and situations lend themselves to being universal.”

Costello said the script of “Harvey” is set as taking place “today,” though there is one notable thing missing. “There are no cell phones and smartphones,” he said, picking up a prop rotary telephone from the table on stage and dialing. “I wonder of kids today would even know how to use one of these.”

But he believes those kids would enjoy “Harvey” just as much as adults who may be familiar with the 62-year-old movie, he said.

“Some people are (familiar with it) and some aren’t,” he said. “I hope they’ll come out and see it.”