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GLT Datebook: 'Harvey' Heads Down A Rabbit Hole Of Laughs

Nahm and Quinlan
Laura Kennedy
Dramaturg Keen-Yoon Nahm, left, works with director Robert Quinlan on the new production of "Harvey."

You can forget about that Peeps-toting bunny. The rabbit to watch this season is one you can’t even see. Or can you? 

The Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Harvey,” by Mary Chase. The play follows Elwood Dowd and his friend, Harvey -- a 6-foot-3 invisible rabbit. Invisible, that is, to others, not to Dowd. The play is an enduring classic, and an exploration of nonconformity and acceptance. 

Director Robert Quinlan wanted to helm this show in order to bring a little levity to the world.

“It’s totally a delightful play. It was written during WWII, when people needed an escape from that dark world that they were facing. And I feel like right now it’s such a divisive world that we’re in, that I thought what better play to bring people together than 'Harvey.'"

Acting as dramaturg for “Harvey” is Keen-Yoon Nahm. The dramaturg’s role is to advise the actors and director by providing historical and cultural insight into the play and the era in which it is set. 

“One of the things that I did was look at archival records of magazines from that period,” Nahm explained. “I wanted to see just what people were thinking about. And what I found fascinating in these magazines was maybe about two-thirds of an issue would be devoted to the war effort, with reports from different fronts in the war, stories about how people were working domestically to support the war.” 

“And then there would be one or two articles towards the back that talk about something on Broadway or Hollywood, as a diversion and a way out of the heavy atmosphere that the war brought. Seeing the proportion of how much the war was on people’s minds in comparison to something like 'Harvey' gives us a very good sense of the kind of relief that this play is meant to offer.” 

The character of Harvey never appears on stage.

“But he is clearly visible to Elwood,” said Quinlan. “And, in fact, some of the other characters in the play see him, as we move forward in the action. Harvey is an integral part of the play.” 

But how to you rehearse with a character that is invisible? “In order to track Harvey for the character playing Elwood, we’ve had different actors stand in for the rabbit,” revealed Quinlan. “So we can trace his blocking across the stage.” 

Playwright Mary Chase was Irish and drew from her cultural heritage to help create the character of Harvey. The giant white rabbit is a pooka. 

“A pooka is a character from Celtic mythology,” explained Nahm. “It doesn’t always appear as a rabbit. It’s a kind of puckish figure that you might compare to Puck in 'A Midsummer’s Night Dream.'"

The pooka can play tricks on humans, but also be a benevolent creature, Nahm said. “It’s the benevolent side that we see more of in this play.” 

“What’s striking about Harvey and Elwood is that they give the gift of attention to everyone they meet,” said Quinlan. “In a world where people are obsessed with status, Elwood and Harvey are really interested in meeting everybody. It’s like everyone they meet is the most fascinating person they’ve ever encountered.” 

The play delves into the question of whether Elwood is insane or merely eccentric.  

“When I first started working on the play, there’s a question about whether Harvey exists or not,” said Quinlan. “And I thought maybe it doesn’t matter.  But the more I work on the play, the more it’s clear that to Mary Chase, Harvey was real. The play deals with the ability of people to encounter something mysterious in their lives and the fact that science can’t explain everything that’s happening around us.” 

There’s a good-natured indictment of psychiatry in “Harvey.” 

“This play is partially a satire on the pop psychology that was popular during that era,” said Nahm. “There was a lot of discussion and interest in especially Sigmond Freud’s theories of the unconscious.  And so the psychiatrists, the experts, who appear in this play, it’s revealed that they don’t understand the human mind quiet as well as Elwood does. What’s important to Mary Chase is to have an open mind, to see the world in a more vivid and imaginative way.” 

“Harvey” opens April 12 at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts. The run continues into Easter weekend. As it should.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.