Whether Mary Chase’s Harvey merits the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded in 1945 is highly questionable. That the play is a delightfully heartwarming experience, however, is not. This modest but effective play became a classic by affirming the fond fantasy that good is bound to win out over bad. Elwood P. Dowd is a daft fella, but he’s nobody’s dummy. Everyone around him turns their own world upside down dealing with the fact that Elwood’s best friend is a six-foot bunny who’s invisible to everyone except Elwood. In the course of the play, we enjoy a splendid romp exposing more than few things about human nature.
Harvey plays through June 29 at Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets ($20) and information, see theatreintheround.org.
You’ve got to have a thoroughly engaging actor playing Elwood or the whole thing falls flat. Well, at the currently running Theatre in the Round production, accomplished veteran Thom Pinault admirably fills the bill. Pinault has worked at, among other venues, Starting Gate, Park Square, and Theatre Latte Da—and in more than 20 shows at Theatre in the Round, including Uncle Vanya, Shadowlands and this season’s My Three Angels. His work also includes performances in New Jersey, Kentucky and Japan.
If you’re convinced Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of Elwood P. Dowd in the film Harvey is the one tried and true way to play this part, think again. Pinault makes the role his own in a splendid take on the somewhat dingy, completely lovable guy whose invisible comrade is about to land him in the loony bin.
You didn’t plan to play Elwood.
When I found out [Theatre in the Round] was going to do it, I auditioned, hoping to be Dr. Chumley, the psychiatrist. Being a character actor, I thought he was more fun. But the director, Steve Anderson, with whom I had worked, decided to have me read for Elwood. I was surprised. When he cast me, it was, oh, my goodness, how’m I gonna do this? ‘Cause [Elwood] is so unlike me. He’s laid back, always cheery. He always has something wonderful to say. That’s not quite my nature. So, I wound up doing a lot of internal work to get comfortable with playing Elwood.
Does Harvey, itself, grab you?
I do like the story. I’m not sure how I would explain how I like the story. As an actor, I like things that show growth, change. And this play does that [with] several of the characters. Ironically, Elwood is one of the least-changed. Everyone else changes quite dramatically.
“I’m not a big intellectualizer. I don’t do a lot of research. It’s gotta be the words and the emotions.”
How did you approach Elwood?
It always starts with the words. Any single word, depending on how you put it in a sentence, how you stress it or don’t stress it, can change everything. So, I’m always playing with the words. You [first consider] what the author has written. Then, you take what the director tells you he would like to do with the piece. And then you take what the other [cast members] have given in response to what you’re giving them. It’s give and take. If Jean [Shore], who’s playing Veta, had been playing her as a snotty, little nouveau riche woman, that would’ve completely the changed the way Elwood reacted to her.
Can you say some more about your approach?
Sure. I’m not a big intellectualizer. I don’t do, necessarily, a lot of research. It’s gotta be the words and the emotions. If the playwright has made the emotions clear through the words they use, then I can deal with it.
How do you like working at Theatre in the Round? You’ve certainly done enough shows there.
I like the space, the people I worked with there. In my opinion [it’s] the best community theater in the Twin Cities. And gives a lot of beginners the opportunity they might not otherwise have.
Speaking of which, have you worked with Wade Vaughn? He got his start there and is one of the strongest young talents around.
I have. We did Ghosts together at Theatre in the Round. Actually, we worked around each other. Saw each other in the green room [and at] rehearsal, but had no scenes together.
Have you seen him work?
Outside of Ghosts, unfortunately no. Well, unfortunately and fortunately. I don’t get to see much theater, especially the last few years. The reason is, in the past four or five or four years I’ve been doing so much theater, myself, I don’t have time to go see somebody else. They’re performing when I am.
Can’t complain about that, can you? How’s the work going?
Starting with the show I did with Wade, I’ve been going through a wonderful range [of characters]. I’ve just been having a ball, reaching areas I haven’t been able to get to before.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.