The title character of the play “Harvey” is one you never see on stage. That’s because Harvey is a 6-foot-3-inch tall, invisible, white rabbit. He’s the imaginary best friend of Elwood P. Dowd, played by two-time Emmy award winner Jim Parsons in the revival currently at Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company.
In the play, Elwood’s sister, Veta, played by Jessica Hecht, delivers Elwood to the local sanatorium, but the doctors mistakenly commit her, and Elwood slips out of the hospital with his invisible rabbit. Carol Kane plays Betty Chumley, the wife of the doctor at the sanatorium, and a kindred spirit for Elwood.
Though no one questions a child’s imaginary friend, it’s not something adults are expected to have.
“As people grow up, you expect them to lose some of that freedom or they’re required to lose some of that freedom of imagination, which is kind of a sad thing,” Kane told WNYC’s Leonard Lopate.
She said Elwood bypasses that expectation of being an adult, as do some others: “The people who see Harvey are the people that have a need to see Harvey; they need that in their lives.:
Parsons “jumped” at the chance to play Elwood and return to the state. “There’s nothing like doing live theater for me, at least, as far as being invigorating and a learning experience.”
He said there is something universal about what the character of Elwood wants.
“I think there’s something completely malleable about it, and I think it partly relates to the fact that, you know, one of the main drives of the character is something so universal – this desire to connect.”
Connecting with the audience is something the three actors strive for. They aren’t new to treading the boards, but they admit they are a bit surprised at how widely an audience can vary their “vocal appreciation” of a show.
“We spend hours analyzing and talking about them, like they’re our children – maybe they have a stomach ache or maybe they’re warm – it’s all physical things we attribute to their lack of [vocal appreciation],” Hecht said.
Parsons added that on the quieter nights though, friends in the audience have assured them that the house audience is engaged – just more quietly than other nights.
Mary Chase, a journalist, wrote “Harvey” for a friend who had lost her son in the war. Chase wanted to make her friend laugh, explained Hecht. Some of the dialogue has changed from the original Pulitzer Prize-winning play, she explained.
“A little picking from other incarnations – a little from the film script, a little from a couple of different versions.”
And some things dated and offensive phrases were left out.
One challenging part of the play was working with an “imaginary” or “invisible” cast member.
“You don’t realize what a gift having a scene partner is until they’re gone,” Parsons said. He said the play’s director, Scott Ellis, walked Harvey a couple of times to help get the timing of things down. And Parsons found places to look at to be consistent when “interacting” with the tall, invisible, white rabbit.
Listen to Leonard Lopate's interview with Jim Parsons, Jessica Hecht and Carol Kane.