Feb. 14-17, 21-24 • 8 p.m.
Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. • $15-$20
Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Non-judgemental, sincere and kind, choosing only to see the absolute best in people and approaching life daily with newfound eyes, even over the most banal of scenarios, Elwood Dowd maintains chivalry to the extreme. He sees the world clearly through rose-colored glasses. While everyone flits around him in a panic, he maintains serenity. While friends and family are pointing fingers and scolding, he is appeasing and listening without planning retribution.
Oh, and did I mention his best friend, Harvey, is a six-and-a-half-foot-tall pooka? An imaginary fairy-like being with mystical powers from Celtic mythology, which takes the shape of an invisible white rabbit? A rabbit that can stop time, space and objections?
Elwood and Harvey go everywhere together, but especially to local taverns, imbibing on much whiskey and meeting friends galore. Elwood introduces Harvey to everyone, and fears not the backlash of confusion or insanity one may assume. This drives his sister, Veta, and her daughter, Myrtle Mae, berserk—literally. Being of high-society, it dampers their appearances to have to explain an imaginary white rabbit to friends.
More so, Elwood controls his mother’s estate, where Veta and Myrtle Mae live, too. The ladies have ideas of taking it over, with Elwood’s “condition” and all. So they commit him to Chumley’s Rest sanitorium. What ensues thereafter is a comedy of errors, as Veta becomes the patient after conceding to seeing Harvey herself once. Yet, when doctors realize they’ve institutionalized the wrong person, a man-hunt takes place to find Elwood and get him off the streets. Somehow along the way, doctors and staff become bewitched by the man and his rabbit, almost hypnotized by his free-for-all life to the point of wanting it themselves.
The cast of Big Dawg’s show is a spectacular assortment of players. Director Robb Mann chooses a wonderful Elwood. Mike O’Neil fills the role with unabashed charm. His kookiness and eccentricities become him full-force, as he wears a haze in his eyes which allude to a dreamy outlook. His calm manner and constant eye contact—even to the point of intruding personal space yet without feeling threatening—simply pull in everyone effortlessly. He oozes cock-eyed charm, as he stumbles about from tavern to party, sips from his flask and insists everyone take note of Harvey. He especially carries a case of FOMO (fear of missing out), which is the fuel to his charisma: social interaction. He can direct a conversation without an ounce of irony as he talks in strange circles about people he doesn’t even know. He back-ends it with insight that often wows: “My mother used to say to me, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh-so smart or oh-so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”
O’Neil’s bag of pleasantries seems dumbfounding, as he convinces us, from a lightness in his soul, that not one discriminatory thought ever crosses him. He must have taken up meditation to exude such inner-peace for this role. I envy it mainly because it’s quite enthralling to think of any human ably showing this degree of restraint; I only know of the Dalai Lama. O’Neil gives the Buddhist a run for his money in this show.
Michelle Gagliano as Veta is a spitfire. Not only can she convincingly portray a massive freak-out but she is a capricious airhead, often succumbing to the inherent and innocent liveliness of her brother. Those are the moments in which Gagliano becomes most likable in her role. Yet, she garners a lot of laughter in her emotional melt-down: frazzled hair, guttural speech and emphatic body gestures. Gagliano gives Veta a case of TMI (too much information), rabbit-trailing and spitting through conversations, making demands often without thinking and clearly harboring some intense sexual repressions. But toward the end, the realization that her brother is unlike most inconsiderate and ungrateful humans turns her—rightfully so.
Lauren Doughten as Myrtle Mae Simmons releases an overzealous youthful appeal. Her zest, even if underhanded at times, makes the character one to laugh with rather than judge. She’s quite a busy-body, often undertaking manipulative tactics to serve her own purposes (to lock away Elwood and gain control of the estate). She’s also desperate for the attention of a man, and when she meets the overbearing orderly Wilson, played by Alex Holland, they’re a cute pair, even if unlikely. Holland’s superior Massachusetts accent and gangster-like quips (“slick as a whistle,” “make it snappy”) add to the hilarity of the hodgepodge cast. In fact, he remains a favorite onstage as a humorous side show with physical comedy in the bag. Lee Lowrimore is the only person elsewhere onstage who can outdo Holland in terms of physical humor. Lowrimore is wide-eyed and caricature-like in his interactions.
Tony Moore plays Dr. Sanderson with dry wit, a nice dichotomy to the script’s otherwise bodacious and obvious humor. He’s a psychiatrist wrapped in analyzing everything, especially a lot of societal mores against women that was prevalent (perhaps still is) of the time. He assumes their emotional outbursts a defect, as if they’re less-than on a human level. His love interest, a gorgeously subdued Janna Murray, shines as quite emotionally stable and rather even-keeled. The only hole here is that Moore’s and Murray’s chemistry doesn’t feel as real as the script alludes; unlike her connection to O’Neil.
Other bright characters perfectly coiffed and mannerly in their well-to-do ranking is Michelle Reiff as Mrs. Betty Chumley, Craig Myers as Judge Omar Gaffney and Debra Gillingham as Mrs. Chauvenet. The latter two remain quite boisterous and bombastic, while Reiff shines as a humbler mother hen. Likewise, Ron Hasson as cab driver E.J. Lofgren brings home the show’s message with panache and impact: Don’t change people for who they are, especially when they’re so humane and pure. Or in Lofgren’s words, “After this [Formula 977 injection] he’ll be a perfectly normal human being, and you know what bastards they are!”
The set is sparse but effective, especially the doctor-office scenes; though, the home’s décor leaves something to be desired in terms of lavishness. The only downfall of the show comes in extremely long set-changes. Still, applause goes to Big Dawg for maximizing small space. While the white rabbit is never apparent to the audience, other than a few opening and closing of doors to indicate he’s present, it would have been nice to use the backdrop to reflect his shadow in some form. I suppose that goes against his invisibility, but if the characters see him when they open their minds, a glimpse for the audience could have sent the show’s magic over the top.