That Darn Wabbit!

Aged pooka still comes out on top.

Lauren Klein, recipient of Mike Hartman's amiability.
Lauren Klein, recipient of Mike Hartman's amiability.
The Cleveland Play House is hedging its bets for the holidays. Its marble halls are crammed with corporately sponsored Christmas trees. In the lobby, burning brightly with the glow of diversity, is a life-sized menorah. On the Bolton stage is the Play House's fourth production of Harvey, one of the most foolproof charmers of the American theater. Casting aspersions on this enchanting fantasy of Elwood P. Dowd and his six-foot-one pooka companion is as unwholesome an act as sucker-punching Granny or sneering at Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."

Harvey was born in 1944 to make audiences forget wartime deprivations. From its charmed infancy, when it snatched the Pulitzer Prize away from Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, through its definitive Jimmy Stewart film version and its vigorous golden years as a high-school/community theater perennial, it proves itself to be a show that refuses to go stale.

First-time playwright Mary Chase, a Denver schoolmarm aching to burst out of Middle America, had an uncanny skill for dramatizing the same brand of fey New Yorker whimsy as cartoonist/writer James Thurber. Like Thurber, she dealt in a world of perpetually pickled, sexless little men, recalcitrant mythical beasts, determined man-chasing matrons in overly tight girdles, and pixilated medical men. Approximating the cartoonist's wry captions, Chase's characters speak in eccentric Americana worthy of Mark Twain.

Chase's special gift was to blend this eccentricity with the art of screwball comedy. As in other enduring works like You Can't Take It With You and Holiday, her play features a lovable outsider who liberates the bourgeoisie from convention. Looking at Dowd through today's clinical eyes, we might perceive him as a borderline alcoholic with interesting delusions. Yet Chase paints him as a slightly melancholy sage consorting with his invisible animal spirit, exuding a healing benevolence to everyone he encounters. In this romantic, topsy-turvy universe, Chase gives us Dowd as a secular messiah, living the doctrine of redemption through gentle good manners. A lost small-town world of ladies' clubs, doddering matrons in fox furs, country clubs, nervous spinsters, and psychiatrists nuttier than their patients is all captured in golden amber.

It's a tribute to the work's continuing hold that this giddy yet subtly rueful exploration of a supernatural friendship has found an enduring spot in our pop culture. The image of a gangly middle-aged man with his arm around an invisible rabbit is as cheering to fantasy lovers as Santa and his red-nosed reindeer soaring out of a Christmas Eve fog or Peter Pan sprinkling fairy dust on the Darling children.

The Play House hasn't tampered with a word, but nevertheless has updated this 56-year-old curio in much the same way as the people at Volkswagen have reappropriated their old Beetle, smoothing it out and streamlining it for new-age consumption.

Set designer Robert N. Schmidt has yanked the play out of its original Life magazine world of confining chintz and sanitarium walls and placed it instead in a free-floating sphere of blue-and-gold horizons, laden with Magritte-style bunny clouds. Forties artifacts, such as a fireplace and bits of that chintz wallpaper, are oddly tossed about as if in one of Dali's surrealistic landscapes.

Director David Colacci has reinvented the era as a liberal Garden of Eden, where interracial romances cheerfully flourish, where a black man is revered as the head of a mental hospital. This denial of a specific time and place damages the author's carefully etched '40s small-town verisimilitude.

Mike Hartman's Elwood P. Dowd musters up little more than an implacable WASP amiability. His scenes with the eponymous pooka bring to mind the late President Eisenhower trying to keep his embarrassing vice president invisible. Hartman's Elwood has neither the sanctity of Chase's holy fool nor the charm of Jimmy Stewart's drawling boy-man.

Keeping the charm flourishing is Darrie Lawrence as the good-hearted but hyper Veta Louise Simmons. Whether yanking at her corset, patting her auburn hair frizzed with anxiety, or speaking in a voice that can go from Margaret Dumont's self-satisfied socialite to an outraged Eleanor Roosevelt, Lawrence is a perfect energizing foil to Hartman's one-note congeniality.

Except for Chuck Patterson's raucous attempts at farce as Dr. Chumley, the rest of the cast add their own share of helium to keep this bunny balloon afloat. Tess Hartman's nurse flutters with old-world coyness. Lauren Klein as a confused wife has a voice that seems to break into a thousand tinkling bells, and Allen Leatherman's Judge Omar Gaffney offers a touch of vintage pomposity.

Those who would scoff at Harvey as a poor excuse for a Christmas play should be reminded that it is concocted out of the same milk of human kindness as that sprinkled by Dickens's Ghost of Christmas Present.