As a trained musician who doesn’t make his full-time living in music, I heard a profound point made in an interview I did Monday with the next Quad City Arts visiting artist.
She said being a full-time professional musician doesn’t guarantee quality. I told her that the vast majority of Quad Cities theater is made by unpaid volunteers, and many productions I’ve seen rival professional theater in their passion, precision, personality and emotional impact.
From top to bottom, every detail and every portrayal has been lovingly, thoughtfully rendered and – fittingly for Valentine’s season – it’s truly a love letter to the halcyon days of the stage, to good manners, generosity, kindness and broad, colorful farce.
Playcrafters director Jake Ladd (who’s had a star-studded show business career) has helmed the Pulitzer-winning “Harvey” four times before, starting in the mid-1980s. He did a production with Eddie Albert, at a dinner theater in Lubbock, Tex., and another in Washington, D.C. starring Buddy Ebsen. Ladd’s last “Harvey” was in Mission Hills, Calif., at a dinner theater around 1991.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the play’s Broadway debut (in 1944, when Playcrafters – the oldest continuously operating theater company in the Midwest — already was 15 years old). “Harvey” remains the 6th longest-running play in Broadway history, Ladd notes in the program.
On many levels, “Harvey” is a true reflection of “Midwest nice,” the native Californian posted on Facebook. “This is my inspiration for directing the play, my Valentine you might say to Playcrafters Barn Theatre and everyone connected to it who have made this Californian feel welcome and at home,” Ladd wrote.
Audiences should feel fortunate that he took his time casting the star of the show, Skip Greer of Preemption — the lead singer of the punk rock band Dead Kennedys, in his first acting role. He’s simply a glorious revelation as Elwood P. Dowd.
Greer joined the band in 2008, replacing Jeff Penalty and is the band’s longest-serving vocalist. Now in his late 50s, he is married to Playcrafters board member Jane Watson (a 1986 Augustana alum), and he’s supplied music for Playcrafters’ “The Odd Couple” and “Almost, Maine,” as well as Genesius Guild’s 2023 production of “Othello.”
Mary Chase’s “Harvey” centers on Elwood and his best friend, Harvey — a pooka, who’s a six-foot tall, invisible rabbit. When Elwood begins introducing Harvey around town, his embarrassed sister, Veta Louise, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, conspire to commit Elwood to a sanitarium. A mistake is made, however, and Veta is deemed to be the crazy one rather than Elwood.
At Playcrafters, one is first struck by the gorgeous, sumptuous set – mainly the elegant, perfectly appointed library in the old Dowd Mansion. The often madcap, thought-provoking play takes place over one day, alternating between the library (at rear) and the reception area (over the thrust stage, with a black-and-white checkerboard floor) of Chumley’s Rest Sanitarium.
Christine Hicks and Kady Derbyshire are wonderful (among a pitch-perfect 10-person cast) as the nervous Veta and Myrtle, respectively – mortified over Elwood’s behavior and constantly worried about what he may do next. He’s referred to as “the biggest screwball in town.”
In Greer’s rendering, Elwood is a serene, courteous, exceedingly amiable fellow – seemingly floating through life with a smile on his face, and eager to make a new friend, and have a drink at Charlie’s Place (whether or not he’s an alcoholic is debatable).
Playwright Chase raises the issues of “acceptance, tolerance, and the amazing power of basic human kindness,” Ladd wrote in the program. It also subtly addresses the always relevant issue of mental health.
The remaining cast are all strong standouts: Kassidy Holdridge as the prim, upstanding nurse Kelly; Zach Zelnio as the commanding, deep-voiced Dr. Sanderson; Don Faust as the frantic sanitarium owner Dr. Chumley; Dave Moreland as the impatient, matter-of fact, tough orderly Wilson; Yvonne Siddque in two roles as Betty Chumley and Mrs. Chauvenet); Kendall Burnett as the wise, imposing Judge Gaffney, and Tim Burrow as the harried cab driver Lofgren.
“Harvey” also boasts a “special appearance” by Robert Sonneville (“Bob in the Urn”), the late former Playcrafters general manager. He converted the former Deere Experimental Barn for the theater in 1959 for its first production there in 1960, and for decades continued to build sets, direct plays, repair seats and fundraise.
When Sonneville died 35 years ago this month, he asked that his ashes be sprinkled over Playcrafters’ roof, but due to local ordinances, that wasn’t possible, so his urn was placed high up in the second-floor rafters “where he would sit and enjoy the results of the work he put in on each show,” the “Harvey” program says.
He stayed there for years until repairs were needed, and his urn was moved to the office, where he sat on a shelf until this current production. “Look carefully and you will see him watching over tonight’s performance high atop a bookshelf in the Dowd family library!” the program says.
Ladd and his talented crew have also engineered a few bits of stage magic (things moving on their own, by “Harvey”). Seeing Harvey himself may require a lot more concentration, but if you see this entire production, you will be treated to magic the entire time.
The show continues Feb. 16-18 at the Barn Theatre, 4950 35th Ave., Moline. “Harvey” performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are available on the website HERE or by calling 309-762-0330 to make a reservation.
Tickets will also be for sale at the door (while available), general admission is $15 ($13 for military and seniors).