Review: Down the Rabbit Hole

Questioning the blurred lines between imagination and reality, and the universal human choice between individuality and social conformity, the latest N.U.T.S. offering will strike a chord with just about anyone.

Directed with impressive attention-to-detail by Shaun Wykes, Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-winning comedy Harvey examines the age-old dichotomies of style and substance, and of reality and fantasy. With a few standout performances from a generally solid ensemble cast, Wykes’ production is an absurd, eccentric charmer.

Harvey takes its name from the figure that stands at the centre of the play’s conflict: a giant, imaginary, anthropomorphic rabbit that can only be seen by a man called Elwood P. Dowd, played with quirky, chipper sweetness by Tom Westland.

While his bunny best friend brings much joy to Elwood, the presence of this imaginary rabbit greatly distresses those around him. Caitlin Hodder is excellent as Elwood’s uptight and frazzled sister, Veta, and Georgia Ginnivan provides some great comedic moments as Veta’s socially (and sexually) frustrated daughter, Myrtle Mae. The two of them teeter around the stage like stuffed marionettes, providing a simultaneously funny and poignant contrast toWestland’s relaxed physicality as the kooky Elwood.

For such a wordy play, it comes as a surprise that the funniest moments of Harvey occur in the absurd silences, the actors’ responses to each other and the quietly deadpan throwaway lines. Morgan Heath-Williams steals an early scene as Elwood and Veta’s Aunt Ethel – her understated, subtle performance is a perfect accompaniment to the hysterical tension that emanates from the other women.

The tiny stage of the ANU Drama Lab may have caused some logistical difficulties for the design team, but the cramped set provides an ideal backdrop for the action. Watching Harvey is like peering into a crumbling dollhouse, where the beautiful vases, lampshades and mahogany bookcases do little to disguise the shakiness of its foundations.

The trade-off for having such an intricate set is one rather long scene change in each act, when the theatre is flooded with blue light and the cast transform the stage from head to toe. It’s a long process, but an effective one, as the intricate details of the set allude to the importance that Veta and Myrtle Mae place on appearances that forms the thematic basis for the play.

The set change brings us to the mental asylum, where Veta attempts to commit Elwood. Of course, nothing goes to plan and hijinks ensue, with some great physical comedy from Dylan Van Den Berg as Dr. Chumley. Will Morris and Jessica Symonds build a charming chemistry as Dr. Sanderson and Nurse Kelly, while Brody Warren is suitably stuffy and indignant as the family’s elderly legal advisor Judge Gaffney.

Written almost seventy years ago, the themes and ideas that Harvey presents are now familiar, well-trodden questions, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of them once in a while.

Elwood may go everywhere with a giant imaginary rabbit; he may seem a simpleton in his enthusiasm for the everyday and the banal; he may fail to pick up on social queues, implied suggestions and figurative speech; but he is infinitely more content than any of the socially-aware and self-conscious characters around him.

Harvey is a sweet, charming romp – it may need some polishing here and there, but it has a heart of gold.