Not all delightful holiday family shows require sugarplums, Christmas trees or hilariously snarky elves.
They don’t even need a holiday theme.
To prove it, New Phoenix Theatre’s seasonal gift to Buffalo is a charming edition of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Harvey.”
The company keeps the story set comfortably in its 1944 roots, when the society pages in the local newspaper could cement one’s social standing and when having a brother whose constant companion is a 6-foot-4½-inch tall invisible rabbit could do the opposite. Rather than feeling dated, the show is classically comical, and director Tom Maker encouraged his fine cast to play it that way – brightly and broadly.
We won’t save the best for last here. Richard Lambert was born to play the gently delusional Elwood P. Dowd, so much so that images of the great Jimmy Stewart in the role quietly fade into black and white. When Lambert is on the stage, the whole theater feels the remarkable pleasantness that pours from Elwood’s (and Harvey’s) aura. He delivers his lines not as if he has learned them, or even as though he wrote them, but as if they have just come to him now, in response to the people around him.
“I’ve wrestled with reality for over 40 years, and I’m happy to say I’ve finally won over it,” he says with pure contentment.
And even when others are confrontational, he doesn’t bite. Told to button up his lips and give a guy some straight answers, Elwood politely points out “What you suggest is impossible,” as he mimes the lip buttoning vs. the mouth speaking.
It is a play and a production of moments well realized. Though Elwood’s sister Vita loves him, she wants him committed to a sanitarium so he and Harvey can’t embarrass her anymore. Elwood wants to make Vita happy, but he also likes to spend time in bars with Harvey. The doctors and staff at the sanitarium, with issues of their own, have trouble determining who exactly is crazy here.
Tammy Hayes McGovern gains everyone’s sympathy as the conflicted Vita, trying to do what is best for her frustrated spinster daughter (heroically played by Caitlin Bauemler Coleman) and her brother, and herself. She just doesn’t know how to reconcile all those loyalties.
Todd Fuller as the family’s lawyer and adviser Judge Omar Gaffney helps us understand how the family got to this point, recalling Elwood’s lifelong ability to enchant everyone around him. More than anyone else, he admires Elwood, despite or even because of his eccentricity.
At the sanitarium, two young employees – a doctor and nurse prettily played by Richard Kraemer and Jamie Nablo – represent both sides of how the world sees Elwood (one says crazy, one says sweet). And then we meet Dr. Chumley.
David Lundy as Chumley rewrites the book on how we see doctors onstage. Pompous? Only briefly. Chumley’s initial reserve collapses as he gets deeper and deeper into Elwood’s case, until he is emoting with every inch of every limb, arms flying and eyes popping as he reconsiders everything he ever thought about his work and purpose. He’s a hoot.
So no, “Harvey” isn’t specifically a holiday show, but it still overflows with a message of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, and the sense that even with all the world’s problems, it’s a wonderful life.