My Best Friend the Bunny 

Contra Costa Civic Theatre revives a beloved play about an imaginary friend.

Apparently the most produced play in Contra Costa Civic Theatre's fifty-year history, Harvey is the sweet, gooey, traditional comedy that put playwright Mary Chase on the map, and inspired the 1950 film version with Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull. Like many old plays, it flirts with real-world issues (greed, alcoholism, psychoanalysis) without delving too deep in the muck. At its heart, it's just a morality tale about the importance of being nice to people — even people who get under your skin. It centers on a repressed, quasi-alcoholic, middle-aged do-gooder named Elwood P. Dowd — played by Tom Reardon in CCCT's latest rendition — who befriends an imaginary six-foot anthropomorphic rabbit, much to the chagrin of his sister Veta (Maureen-Theresa Williams) and niece Myrtle Mae (Liz Caffrey). All three of them live in Dowd's inherited mansion, along with the rabbit, whom Dowd has named Harvey. Such execrable circumstances drive Veta and Myrtle Mae do what any rationally minded social climbers would do in that situation: try to commit Dowd to a sanatorium, then take the money and run. It's easier said than done.

For two women to put their male benefactor in the funny farm would have been unthinkable back in 1944 (the year Harvey premiered on Broadway), and even today, it smacks of mean-spiritedness. Yet it's hard not to sympathize with Veta and Myrtle Mae. Dowd has a way of making people cringe, and surely he was just as irritating half a century ago. He has one of those earnest, cloying personalities that's hard to like but easy to pity — thus, everyone feels bad for detesting him. Dowd is a serial hander-outer of business cards and joiner of social clubs. He drinks whiskey by the bottle, hangs out with riff-raff, and won't think twice about letting any stranger into his house. Worst of all, he's completely serious about the bunny friend Harvey. So serious, in fact, that he'll introduce Harvey to anyone who crosses his path, from distant relatives to people he meets at bars.

Clearly, the play wants us to chafe against Dowd in the same way that Mike Leigh wanted us to feel uncomfortable with Poppy, the overly sanguine lead character in his 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky. But ultimately, we're supposed to feel sorry for the hapless main character and want to protect him from a whole slew of venal forces: Veta and Myrtle Mae, who want to sell Dowd's house and take a dream vacation to Pasadena; Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Greg Milholland), an apprentice psychiatrist who only wants to advance his career while carousing with head nurse Ruth Kelly (Liz Olds); and William R. Chumley (Ken Ray), a senior psychiatrist armed with Formula 977, one dose of which will transform Dowd into a "normal human being." As it turns out, most characters in the play are as screwy as Dowd, they just act it out in a more socially acceptable way.

Harvey won a Pulitzer in 1945, but by today's standards it seems anachronistic. To make the play work, director Kathleen Ray stays true to its 1940s setting: The men wear bowler hats, the women dress in taffeta, and the sanatorium has three Rorschach test images framed on the wall. For the most part, Ray lets the play be funny on its own terms, and it does, indeed, offer quite a few chuckles. Playwright Chase wrote it during a time when jokes were allowed to roll to a natural conclusion, rather than rush for a punch-line. Thus, the humor operates in subtle ways and a lot of it derives from the characters' congenital hokeyness. Myrtle Mae is constantly on the lookout for a man (really, any man) to rescue her from a kooky uncle and overbearing mother — the first who comes along is the cheeky hospital orderly Duane Wilson (Billy Raphael). Veta, naturally, sees Wilson as a sex predator, mostly because he sequestered her in the sanatorium for one night, due to a misunderstanding. There are jokes sprinkled throughout about the sanatorium — which, as Veta points out, is mostly a place to put surly, ill-mannered women until they learn how to behave. Meanwhile, the psychologists hit on their nurses and the head doctor has sex fantasies that all take place at a hotel in Akron, Ohio.

In that environment, we're meant to view Elwood P. Dowd as just a little less crazy than everyone else. Reardon plays him as an affable sad sack who most of us have encountered in real life. He has a perfect Li'l Abner face for the part, and a kind of joie de vivre that verges on being — well, creepy. Were the play set in 2009, Dowd would probably have a lot of imaginary friends on the Internet. While the plot is a little far removed for modern audiences, it's still a charming production, buoyed by Reardon and some talented bit-part actors. Raphael is hilarious trying to seduce the bratty Myrtle Mae, while Chris Harper steals the show as an ornery cab driver who unwittingly becomes Dowd's savior (and indicts modern psychiatry in the process). Cheery sitcom music between scenes gives this production a winking quality. It might be Ray's way of admitting that the play is a bit dated, but we love it anyway, just as we love Elwood P. Dowd.

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