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 June 22 , 2012

And the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in Drama goes to ...

The Glass Menagerie wasn’t the first non-musical that I saw, but it was the first one to pack a genuine wallop. I can’t say for certain what row or seat I was in at the Charles Playhouse in Boston, but I know I could take you there today and point you to both – as well show you how high I jumped when Laura and her Gentleman Caller banged into the table. That’s how vivid an impression it made on me at 17.

I’ve since seen The Glass Menagerie 14 more times – in Massachusetts again, as well as England, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey and of course New York. I’ve never tired of it a whit. Whenever a theater announces it – and many do, what with four characters, one set and a masterpiece script – I always look forward to seeing it again.

But I have no problem whatsoever in understanding why Harvey and not The Glass Menagerie won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize.

Many a critic, when reviewing the current production of Harvey at the Studio 54, considered the Pulitzer decision a genuine miscarriage of justice. But I say that while The Glass Menagerie may well be the best family drama of all time, we’ve had many plays where parents battle with their children and vice versa. Harvey is sui generis.

Mary Chase’s comedy starts out fancifully: Elwood P. Dowd chums around with a six-foot three-and-a-half-inch invisible rabbit named Harvey. This unnerves both his sister Veta Louise Simmons and her daughter Myrtle Mae. Veta goes to Chumley’s Rest to get Elwood committed, but does such a bad job of explaining Harvey that Dr. Sanderson assumes that she’s the crazy one and has her locked up. For a while Elwood goes free, but there’s a day of reckoning for him, too. He’ll be forced to take some medication that sounds as if it’s a liquid lobotomy.

In a world where many people believe in angels, spirits, ghosts, paranormal activity and the like, why can’t a man believe in Harvey? I can certainly understand why Harvey would want to pal around with Elwood. What a sweet guy! If Elwood answers the phone and hears that the caller has reached a wrong number, he doesn’t hang up annoyed that his time was wasted like the rest of us. Instead, he starts a conversation with the caller.

Many of us belittle small talk and chit-chat, but Elwood makes us see that both are preferable to stony silence. He’s incapable of being bored by anyone, and sees every person as a candidate for friendship. If indeed “we’re all in this together,” why don’t we act more together with each other?

Elwood grooves on the human race – which is more than we can say for Veta Louise. She judges people according to class distinctions and decries rubbing elbows with “people you’ve never heard of.” Later, Myrtle Mae refers to her neighbors and snorts, “What do we care about the McIlhennys?” Elwood instead sees everyone as a gold mine ready to yield worthy excavating. He talks not only from the heart, but also from the mind and the soul. When he says that Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet is “one of my favorite people,” he convinces us that he’s telling the truth. Even when he says the old dowager is “a beautiful woman,” he’s not being an idle flatterer. This is what he sees, because he can look past age and fat and see her inner beauty.

We’ve all told people that we want to get together “one of these days” or even “soon.” Such an automatic response doesn’t cut it with Elwood. Any time such a plan is postulated, he zeroes in and says “When?” He really wants to make a date so he can get to know the person he’s speaking to. That’s the fun of life. “One can’t have too many friends,” he insists. Even Facebook’s 5,000 would be too few for him.

And isn’t craziness in the eye of the beholder? Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae is ready to throw herself at the next man who comes through the door, and when that’s Wilson – the stevedore-like guard at the sanitarium – she’s ready to fall in love. Never mind that he’s crude and quick-tempered. Would you be interested in a person who blatantly says, “You got the screwiest uncle who ever stuck his puss in our nuthouse.” But Wilson’s a man, so Myrtle Mae will take him.

At least she knows what she wants. Dr. Sanderson and his Nurse Kelly play mind games with each other. They do want to be romantically involved, but neither he nor she is willing to take the plunge and admit deep feelings. Isn’t that crazy? How can we dare risk not getting what we want by holding back? Time passes much too quickly, and we cannot assume that the opportunities afforded us when we’re young will be there forever.

Myrtle Mae tells us her plans once Elwood is committed. She’ll take control of the house to which he holds the title and will sell it at a nice profit. Not so nice, is she? Meanwhile, Elwood is a gentleman in that he has a gentle spirit, but there’s more to him. He’s ready to show politeness and respect to Nurse Kelly the moment he meets her, simply because good manners are part of who he is. When Elwood tells her, “I’d rather look at you” and that “You’re really very lovely,” he isn’t on the make. Notice that he talks about “a long and warm friendship,” and not a romance. The frustrated nurse, deeply infatuated with Dr. Sanderson but painfully aware of his inattention, spurs Elwood to point out that “Some people are blind.” He does make us believe that we’d all be better off if we had his eyes and could see the beauty in the world. Even when Wilson is rough with him, he judges the jostling as aberration or – here’s an ironic way of looking at it – temporary insanity.

Granted, Elwood has enough money that he doesn’t need to work, so he has plenty of time on his hands to figure out how the world works and what medicine it should take. But the implication is there that even if he put in eight hours like the rest of us, he’d spend his spare time coming to at least some of the same conclusions. When told of birth trauma, he says “that’s the shock that we never get over.” The audience laughs, because they know he has a point. How many of us are still making mistakes that we made in our childhood – or because of our childhood?

Yes, I wish that Elwood didn’t drink – or at least talk about drinking so much. Chase may have made a mistake here, for we can all easily assume that Elwood’s a drunk and that Harvey is his latest bout of delirium tremens. I think we have to take his drinking, however, with a pinch of salt (and not one around a margarita). Although drinking has since time immemorial been The Great Equalizer and a great problem, it didn’t quite have the stigma it has now. Besides, whatever one can say about Elwood – and it’s certainly true of Scott Ellis’ muster-passing production as well as the Elwood of Jim Parsons – he never seems the least bit tipsy and certainly never drunk.

But here’s one miraculous thing about Harvey: the audience, to a man and woman, comes to take Elwood’s side. You can feel it in the current production: the crowd is entranced by this most atypical man and wants everyone to leave him alone. He isn’t hurting anybody. When he says “I’ve wrestled with reality all my life, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it,” the audience applauds – and in atypical fashion. It’s not the applause that a slam-bang punch line gets, but gentle handclaps of “I know what you mean, Elwood, and I’d like to have done exactly as you have. You may be in your own little world, but I’d certainly like to live in it.”

For now, however, most of us are going to have to let Elwood do it for us. Not to take anything away from Jim Parsons, who gives a wonderful performance that’s measured and droll, but the audience first and foremost is applauding Elwood P. Dowd and all he says.

And then, little by little, the audience even comes to believe in Harvey himself. We would -- even if the suggestion weren’t made that he’s real. What he represents is freedom for our imaginations, the ability to use our five senses to the maximum, finding that we’re all capable of more than we ever thought we were.

It all comes to a head when Elwood, in order to please both Veta and Myrtle Mae, will take the formula. A cab driver comes in, and after only a few lines and one speech, comes out with an exit line that always gets applause. But lines that tell the 100% truth always get applause.

Ellis adds too many farcical touches, such as having Jessica Hecht’s legs go out from under her one time too often when she returns home from the sanitarium. Everyone mugs too much every now and then, and Carol Kane’s Mrs. Chumley is a little too eccentric. But any chance to see a Broadway non-musical with a cast of 11 is a welcome one – and that’s especially true of this unique work.

While Carrie originally claimed that “there’s never been a musical like her,” there’s never been a character like Elwood P. Dowd -- or a play like Harvey since it won its deserved Pulitzer. There probably never will be again.

         — Peter Filichia


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