Pendragon Theatre opens ‘Harvey’

SARANAC LAKE – If you’ve ever met John P. Elwood, you’ve probably also met his best friend, Harvey.

Elwood and Harvey go just about everywhere together. That doesn’t sit well with Elwood’s aspiring socialite sister, Veta Louise Simmons, or her daughter, Myrtle Mae. It’s not because Harvey lacks manners, is devious or has bad hygiene. The mother and daughter dislike Harvey because they can’t see him, and Elwood’s description of his pal – a 6-foot, 3-and-a-half-inch-tall white rabbit who wears a hat and an overcoat – does little to convince them otherwise.

Equity actor Jon Liebetrau is visiting Saranac Lake from Pennsylvania to play Elwood. He has acted for 35 years and met Pendragon Creative Director Karen Lordi-Kirkham when the pair worked together at Dickinson College.

It’s his first time performing at Pendragon.

“I love playing Elwood because he’s such a true individual,” Libetrau said. “He’s not pretentious, and he doesn’t try to harm people. He has ideas, but he doesn’t push them on people. It’s a good model for people.”

Not everyone who knows Elwood would agree that his psyche is one-size-fits-all.

After he embarrasses Veta and Myrtle by bringing Harvey to an upper-crust-exclusive party, Veta tries to have Harvey committed to a sanitarium, but things don’t go as planned. Veta’s profound anxiousness mixes with Dr. Sanderson’s incompetence, and Sanderson has Veta committed instead.

It’s only later that Sanderson realizes his mistake, and a chaotic scramble to find Elwood ensues.

“Harvey” opens tonight at Pendragon Theatre and is a fitting continuation of the theater’s summer season theme, “Dreams.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written by Mary Chase, explores what happens when an otherwise kind and reasonable man is judged harshly based on his affinity for an imaginary being.

Visiting Director Jordan Hornstein said the play speaks to a desire within everyone to let loose the often-subdued creative inclinations of the mind.

“It’s about imagination, and the substantive nature of the imagination,” Hornstein said. “It’s about the ability of the imagination to change people, and to do some good. The rabbit is a benevolent spirit.”

The inspiration for that spirit comes from a somewhat mischievous creature in Celtic mythology called a pooka.

“You could say he’s Elwood’s alter ego, but without the ‘alter’ part meaning opposite,” Hornstein said. “I suppose you could also say Elwood is Harvey’s alter ego. There’s a sense that Elwood has changed a great bit in the past few years and Harvey hasn’t always been with him.”

Harvey brings more than a ridiculous presence to the play’s narrative. His quiet message, it seems, is one of acceptance, and it’s something he lets Elwood verbalize as he responds to the craziness around him.

“A lot of it is about letting people be different, and not trying to judge or change them because they see things in a different way,” Liebetrau. “The person who’s crazy might be more sane than the person accusing him of being crazy. In fact, he might seem healthier than most people.”