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Jonathan Gillard Daly plays Elwood P. Dowd, the eccentric who befriends an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit in the Rep's

'Harvey's' charms appear slowly but surely

Harvey has all the ingredients of a great Quadracci Powerhouse holiday show: 

Distinguished script (winning writer Mary Chase a Pulitzer in ’45).

Comedic but not edgy premise (eccentric man has an imaginary best friend; hijinks ensue).

Director who’s worked in the time slot before (KJ Sanchez, late of The Diary of Anne Frank and Noises Off).

Rep stars teaming up in the tradition of the old resident company (Jonathan Gillard Daly, Deborah Staples, James Pickering and Laura Gordon, to name a few).

Despite so much going for it, the production doesn’t find its stride until the second act.

On the surface, there’s nothing too different about the first and second halves of the play. In the former, socialite Veta Louise Simmons (Staples) tries to get her brother Elwood P. Dowd (Daly) committed to a sanatorium after he starts to see a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey around the house. She fails due to comic mistiming. And in the latter, she and the facility’s lead psychiatrist Dr. Chumley (Pickering) keep trying to have him committed to the sanatorium and keep comically failing.

It’s the tone, I suspect, that’s at fault. Staples, Daly and Pickering are performing at the level you'd expect of them in the play’s opening scenes, as are Kelley Faulkner, Gabriel Ruiz and Justin Brill as members of the hospital staff. But Sanchez has them taking the play too seriously for an audience to do more than appreciate how well they’re managing.

Veta’s concern that her guests at a dinner party “meet” Harvey is so intense that it makes her seem cruel, not misguided. And while Daly does a marvelous job play-acting Harvey’s presence in the scene, it’s not enough to suggest there’s an explanation for Dowd’s actions that doesn’t make him crazy — when, in fact, part of the premise of the second act is that Dowd might not be crazy at all.

It doesn’t help that the first act feels uncomfortably dated at times. Veta’s concern about Elwood and Harvey is implicitly tied to her concern that her daughter will never have a gentleman come calling, a subplot that’d be tough to swallow even if it wasn’t basically dropped after it’s initially mentioned in favor of a real estate subplot that doesn’t go anywhere either. And the play’s first visit to the sanatorium hinges on a case of mistaken identity that would be cleverer if it didn't rely on the cringeworthy, misogynistic assumption that the woman displaying emotions is crazy, not the seemingly rational man who came with her.

Both the tonal and temporal dissonance fade away after intermission. Adding in the element of a chase puts Staples and Pickering’s characters into better focus. Sanchez and her cast can lean more heavily on the play’s farcical elements. The play's second half also marks the first appearance of Veta’s lawyer, played by semi-retired former Rep company member Richard Halverson, a charming addition to the melée.

But what truly makes the difference is the subtle shift in thinking that opens up the possibility that Harvey actually is an invisible friend to Elwood — one attracted to the oddities in his personality that make him lovable with or without a six-foot-tall rabbit at his back.

It’s a great second act that’s worth waiting through a merely good first act to enjoy. Dan Conway's revolving set, which oscillates between Elwood and Veta’s ornately decorated home and Chumley’s minimalistic white hospital, helps to charm the eye during some of the play's early rough patches.

On stage

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Harvey runs through Dec. 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at milwaukeerep.com or 414-224-9490. 

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