Theatrical classic offers an absurdist take on family conflict

The Forum Theatre production of 'Harvey' runs through May 12 at the Wilke Center.

Theatrical classic offers an absurdist take on family conflict
Catch one of the last four performances of "Harvey" through Sunday, May 12. Photo courtesy of the Forum Theatre.

If reality is what ails you, the Forum Theatre offers the perfect medicine.

"Harvey" is a 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy written by playwright, journalist and children’s novelist Mary Chase. Audiences may be familiar with the 1950 film adaption starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull. 

Directed artfully by Kathryn Page Hauptman and produced by Aaron Profit with set design by Ben Juhnke, Wichita’s Forum Theatre takes audiences back in time to the post-World War II urban American landscape. Veta Louise Simmons, played by accomplished veteran actor Beth Wise, wants more than anything to host friends, appear normal, and concretize her place in society. Veta wishes her brother, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Equity actor Mark Mannette, would stop getting in the way. Elwood is a good-natured man who claims to have a “six foot, three-and-one-half inch tall pooka” companion, an anthropomorphic white rabbit named Harvey. 

Beth Wise and Nora Graham in the Forum Theatre's production of "Harvey." Photo courtesy of the Forum Theatre.

Supporting characters in the cast include Veta’s wannabe society girl daughter Myrtle Mae Simmons (Nora Graham) who says, in a defining moment, “Oh, mother — people get run over by trucks every day. Why can’t something like that happen to Uncle Elwood?” Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Aaron Profit) and nurse Ruth Kelly (Shanna Berry) both work in the sanatorium where Veta attempts to have Elwood committed. They offer a subplot of inappropriate workplace attraction and comical hijinks when Veta is mistakenly committed instead of Elwood. 

Notoriously, "Harvey" beat out Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie" for the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 with a cast of dynamic characters who could be played realistically or as cartoons in high definition. One of these, renowned psychiatrist Dr. William Chumley, is played by Michael Karraker, who  employs a progressively over-the-top acting style that marries the absurd with the commonplace. Chumley is concerned with his reputation but has an intellectual curiosity about Elwood’s "condition:" “I have known several men in my day named Harvey, but I have never heard of any type of animal whatsoever with that name. This case has an interesting phase, doctor.” 

Mark Mannette in the Forum Theatre's production of "Harvey." Photo courtesy of the Forum Theatre.

Mannette as Elwood is a beloved Mister Rogers type who emanates a believably gentle spirit throughout the production. He's soothing to watch as he leans into the easygoing and endearing Elwood, whose simplicity and sincerity are contagious, as he wishes only to do good. He says, “For years I was smart. I recommend Pleasant. You may quote me.” Beth Wise’s deft characterization of Veta adds realism to the plot. Here is a proud woman consumed with appearances whose frazzled confusion and conflicted perspective cause the audience to empathize with her plight. We don’t want her to become undone, but we urge her to accept her brother as he is — maybe delusional but happy and affable.  

The Forum Theatre is located at First United Methodist Church on the corner of Third and Broadway. Inside, you will be welcomed by a friendly host of volunteers who check you in and escort you to your seat. There is a backdrop photo opportunity as you walk into the main space. During intermission, you are encouraged to delight in “from scratch” desserts and Spice Merchant coffee. The show starts at 8 p.m. and runs a little over two hours, after which you’re likely to feel like Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey, that “We have entered as strangers — soon we have friends.” 

The Details

The Forum Theatre presents “Harvey”
Four more performances: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 9-11; and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 12, at The Forum Theatre at Wilke Center, First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway in Wichita
Park and enter on the north end of the east side of the building (off Topeka Street).
Cost: $36 plus a $2 fee. A 10% military discount and half-price tickets for students with a current student ID are available. 
Learn more and reserve tickets.

Stacy Lee Chestnut is a local theater and art-scene enthusiast. She has been an actor and educator in Wichita since 2002. 

Sign up for Where the Art Is, our free monthly email newsletter

Stay in the know about Wichita's arts and culture scene with our event calendar and news roundup.