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French and Vanessa Claire Stewart pull ‘Harvey’ out of a hat in Laguna Beach

French and Vanessa Claire Stewart pull ‘Harvey’ out of a hat in Laguna Beach
French Stewart, Lily Gibson, Vanessa Claire Stewart and Carole Ita White star in the Laguna Playhouse production of “Harvey” by Mary Chase, directed by Andrew Barnicle and now playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

Has any Golden Age play got more bounce and life to it than “Harvey?”

Mary Chase’s 1944 fantasy-tinged comedy became an instant classic and won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s been a stage perennial ever since, including two past productions at Laguna Playhouse and a third about to open.

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The first was during the 1970-71 season. Next was summer 2003, featuring Charles Durning as Elwood P. Dowd, the gentle tippler whose best friend is Harvey, a 6-foot-tall rabbit no one else can see.

Directed by showbiz vet Charles Nelson Reilly, that production also starred Joyce Van Patten as Elwood’s hapless sister Veta Louise, her brother Dick Van Patten as Dr. Chumley, and Dick’s son Vincent as a hospital orderly.

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The play has a history of celebrity stars, from James Stewart in the original Broadway production, the 1950 film and the 1970 revival, to Joe E. Brown, Donald O’Connor and, for television, Art Carney, Helen Hayes, Rue McClanahan and Carol Kane.

Laguna Playhouse’s third production of the Golden Age classic “Harvey” — about a man and his best friend, a six-foot-tall bunny — runs through June 13.
Laguna Playhouse’s third production of the Golden Age classic “Harvey” — about a man and his best friend, a six-foot-tall bunny — runs through June 13. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

Laguna’s latest “Harvey” stars French Stewart as Elwood and his wife, Vanessa Claire Stewart, as Veta, with former playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle at the helm.

The Stewarts have stage history working together. Late last year they co-starred in the Los Angeles premiere of Joe Gilford’s “Finks” at Rogue Machine. Back in 2012, Vanessa wrote the play “Stoneface” as a birthday gift to French. The couple took the show, a theatrical portrayal of Buster Keaton, from Sacred Fools theater to the much larger Pasadena Playhouse.

This “Harvey” is Vanessa’s third role and French’s second at Laguna Playhouse. TimesOC asked the couple to share their thoughts on bringing such a well-known comedy to today’s audiences.

French Stewart: This play is a precision instrument. It’s also very much an ensemble piece. It demands that a group of actors work in concert with each other in a very specific way. Luckily, we have that. Also, we have a terrific director in Andrew Barnicle. He is exacting and precise, yet also has a tremendous grasp of humor.

Vanessa Claire Stewart: The precision and speed to which this language must be delivered in order to keep it at a farcical level can be physically exhausting — especially to carry Veta’s anxiety around for a whole two hours. It’s more challenging than I thought it’d be.

French: The play is deceptively hard because the language is so intricate. It’s marvelous. It moves at lightning pace.

Vanessa: It reminds me of a Restoration comedy, like a comedy of language and manners.

TimesOC: How about fulfilling such iconic roles as Elwood and Veta Louise?

French: There’s a joy in growing into a role that you were originally introduced to in high school. There are a lot of 17-year-old Elwood P. Dowds running around. I feel like I’ve earned the right to play him now.

Vanessa: I hadn’t done a comedy in awhile, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. But there’s something very enjoyable about having 400 people laugh at a joke you’ve just made on stage.

French: “Harvey” is this sort of national treasure, and the audience knows they’re not going to get Jimmy Stewart. Some of them never get over that. But I have a love for this material. Always have.

TimesOC: What’s the take-away for audiences about to see this production?

Vanessa: Mary Chase wrote this play during World War II, when the whole country needed a break from politics and war. People just needed to laugh. Cut to 2019, people need a good laugh today just as much as then, and I’m looking forward to giving people a lovely evening.

French: People think of “Harvey” as just a nice little play, but it’s so relevant. It has a huge thread throughout about how women are treated and whether we should listen to them. It reflects the human condition. It isn’t just about a guy and an invisible rabbit.

IF YOU GO

What: “Harvey”

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Sunday through June 16. Opens 5:30 p.m Sunday; runs 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 p.m. Sundays. Additional performances: June 4, 5:30 p.m.; June 9, 2 p.m. June 13

Cost: $60 to $85

Information: (949) 497-2787; lagunaplayhouse.com

Eric Marchese is a contributor to TimesOC.

For more news and features about Orange County, visit TimesOC.com or follow us on Twitter @timesocofficial.

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