“Harvey” Hits Stage at Pierson

A scene from "Harvey," which screens this week at Pierson High School.
A scene from "Harvey," which screens this week at Pierson High School.
A scene from “Harvey,” which screens this week at Pierson High School.

By Annette Hinkle

Perhaps you’ve noticed, tensions are high and a lot of people aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye these days.

But given the events of the past week or so, one thing we can probably all agree on is that a little diversion is in order.

Fortunately, this weekend the thespians of Pierson High School are ready to transport audiences out of this particular reality and into an alternative one with “Harvey,” Mary Chase’s 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning comedy about Elwood P. Dowd, a good natured middle-aged man and his best friend, an invisible six-foot rabbit for whom the play is named.

It’s an uplifting script and one that director Keith Holden and producer Elizabeth Marchisella felt would be a good offering for the Pierson stage. It’s also a play that was chosen with input from student Matthew Schiavoni, the only senior in the cast. Because he plans to pursue theater in college, they wanted to select a script that would give Mr. Schiavoni an opportunity to build on his skill set in preparation for that next step.

“Matt wanted to do a drama to show more dimension,” explains Ms. Marchisella. “But with this group and Matt’s ability, this play allows it to show through.”

“The concept of the show definitely intrigued me,” says Mr. Schiavoni, who stars as Elwood P. Dowd, a simple, but friendly man who is very open to people.

Whether they are receptive to him in return, however, depends largely on how they react when he introduces them to Harvey, his invisible sidekick.

While some people he meets are willing to indulge him in the fantasy, proving themselves to be empathetic and compassionate, others resist the notion, especially Elwood’s sister, Veta, who worries that her brother is either a drunk or mentally ill, and either way, ruining her social standing and that of her daughter with his unseen bunny buddy.

“Certain characters will get frustrated with Elwood because he’s incurably positive,” says Mr. Schiavoni. “He responds with more positivity, which diffuses it.”

“We can all learn from Elwood,” adds Ms. Marchisella.

“With everything going on, it seems like there’s bad news all over the place,” says Mr. Holden. “This is about a guy finding his own spirit and the humanity in people. I think both are timeless and important.”

When asked if he felt it was silly to have a giant invisible rabbit as a character in a play, Mr. Schiavoni responds, “I think there are times when the idea of an invisible rabbit comes off as silly, but it depends on which character is on stage.”

“To Elwood, everything about Harvey is real,” he adds. “He doesn’t see it as silly.”

That honesty and heartfelt desire to connect is a characteristic that Mr. Schiavoni has come to appreciate in Elwood P. Dowd, and he totally gets where he is coming from.

“Sometimes Elwood will get Harvey to start the conversation because he’s not sure how to start it,” explains Mr. Schiavoni. “It will lead to a new understanding that he can’t get to on his own.”

“One thing that’s a very large part of Elwood is he sees the people worth knowing,” he adds. “He also finds what’s worth knowing about everyone.”

“I’d like to get better at that myself.”

Part of the acting challenge for Mr. Schiavoni in this role is the fact that his co-star is totally imaginary. He admits he can’t rely on getting much feedback from Harvey when he’s up there alone.

“It’s one of the harder things I’ve done,” says Mr. Schiavoni. “It kind of feels like when someone else in a show is sick for a day and there’s nobody there to read for them. I have to remember there’s not a guy coming do to this so I have to be consistent with this.”

“Sort of like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’” he adds. “Actually, there are a lot of parallels in that.”

It’s important to remember that “Harvey” is set in 1945, so audiences shouldn’t be too surprised by outdated references, especially when it comes to gender roles. For Ms. Marchisella, “Harvey” may be a little old-fashioned in terms of some of its plot structure, but she feels it is an ideal play for what’s ailing a lot of folk these days.

“It makes you escape what you’re going through,” says Ms. Marchisella. “That’s the nature of theater. The meaning behind the play is to work on the positivity in life and find it within on your own.”

“It’s also about being open,” adds Mr. Holden. “The characters that are open to Harvey have that opportunity.”

“I had never seen the play before,” says Ms. Marchisella. “I fell in love with it. When you do see it you’ll see why.”

Another reason to be optimistic is the fact that this will be the first production in the newly renovated and totally upgraded Pierson auditorium. Due to ongoing construction, the cast and crew of “Harvey” were only able to access the auditorium last week, and as they rehearsed in the new space, work on finishing touches continued all around them.

But when the lights come up this weekend, audiences will get their first look at a totally new and improved Pierson auditorium. Ms. Marchisella and Mr. Holden are thrilled by the new space.

“We had an eight hour training session on the lighting and audio system,” says Mr. Holden.

“It’s incredible how far the technology has come, and where we were before,” says Marchisella. “None of the seats are broken, the proscenium arch is bigger. When our actors come through here they deserve this. They have been putting up with a theater that needed to be renovated.”

“We’re so excited,” she adds.

Pierson High School’s production of “Harvey” runs Thursday and Friday, November 17 and 18 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, November 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. 200 Jermain Avenue, (631) 725-5300.