Summer classic: ‘Harvey’

Jimmy Stewart as the whimsical and alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd admiring his friend and companion,  /><p class=Jimmy Stewart as the whimsical and alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd admiring his friend and companion, Harvey, a six-foot three-inch invisible white rabbit. Associated Press

If you are going to hang an entire movie on a central character who is an alcoholic and firmly believes he hangs out with a six-foot, 3-inch white rabbit, you need to have an actor who can pull it off. And the golden age of filmmaking certainly had that in affable Jimmy Stewart.

Not only did he make Elwood P. Dowd’s illusion — or is it? — utterly charming, he managed to make everyone else in his family look completely ridiculous in the process. Harvey was Henry Koster’s 1950 adaptation of Mary Chase’s stage play, which we saw revived earlier this year at the Woodford Theatre, with charming Central Kentucky actor Eric Johnson taking on the lead role.

The story centers around Elwood, and his social-climbing sister and their niece’s attempt to have him committed to a sanitarium so they can have a normal life, without Uncle Elwood popping up and offering to introduce everyone to his invisible giant rabbit. Elwood is nothing if not polite, constantly making introductions and offering to buy people drinks.

But the commitment plans go off the rails and the comedy ramps up when the doctors conclude that Elwood’s sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), must be the crazy one.

As I watched Woodford’s production earlier this year, it occurred to me that an ideal modern Elwood would be Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, who has made the significantly more socially awkward Sheldon Cooper a beloved character for eight seasons now, and lo and behold, Roundabout Theatre has already done that.

But Wednesday at the Kentucky Theatre Summer Classics series, we get to see the original, Jimmy Stewart, in a performance that is hard to beat for its charm and its wisdom.

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