A mix of student thespians and community actors bring to life the story of a man and his invisible best friend.
By Enzo Paraggine
Syrinx staff writer
A group of student actors and local community actors under the direction of adjunct instructor Elizabeth Fiester are bringing Mary Chase’s award-winning play “Harvey” to Fresno Pacific University’s new Warkentine Culture & Arts Center Theater and Atrium.
After various adaptations by many different theaters and actors, “Harvey” is returning to the stage in 2022. This time, it is played by the FPU Theater Department. Under the direction of the experienced Fiester, and with a talented and varied cast, the play opened Nov. 10 and continues through Nov. 19
“Harvey“ is a very popular play in American culture, written by Mary Chase in 1944. In that same year, it debuted on Broadway and closed in January 1949 after 1,775 performances. It became the fifth longest-running Broadway play at that time. Chase was an influential American journalist and playwright.Throughout her career, she wrote more than 14 plays, three of them eventually becoming Hollywood movies, including “Harvey.” Chase’s influential play went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
“Harvey” follows the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a very friendly man who claims his best friend is a giant rabbit named Harvey. Even though Dowd is the only one who sees the rabbit, he insists on introducing Harvey to everyone he meets. This “issue” is not well received by Elwood’s sister and niece who are trying to become members of high society. The sister, Veta Simmons (Stephanie Gonzales) and niece Myrtle Mae (Alex Hodson) decide to get Elwood committed to a psychiatric clinic. This action goes terribly wrong, which then results in the original play’s plot twists.
The FPU version of “Harvey” is a scene-by-scene interpretation. Fiester, an adjunct instructor at Fresno Pacific, has directed over 100 plays and has worked in places such as Good Company Players, where she had her directorial debut in 1983. Fiester has directed other famous plays like “Annie Jr.” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” This is her second semester at FPU, and she has decided to go with “Harvey” for the first play of this year.
“We looked for a title that was recognizable for the FPU audience and the American comedy, and Harvey hit those two factors,” Fiester said. “Personally, I also deeply love this script and know it very well.
The non-student community actors, she added, “are people that I have worked with before and they are really easygoing and reliable, the whole cast is very committed to the work and have connected smoothly.”
Joseph Ayrton Ham is the actor playing Elwood. He is a well-experienced community actor who has many popular plays under his belt, acting at Reedley’s River City Theatre Company. He has worked in plays such as “West Side Story” and “Les Miserables.”
“FPU’s new culture and arts facilities are awesome, it has been great to work here,” Ham added. “It is very similar to other big theaters I have worked on. I’ve worked with Elizabeth before and I´m familiar with her way of directing. She is a great and very clear director.”
“I must figure out my own way of interpreting Elwood,” Ham said. “Jimmy Stewart (who played Dowd in the movie version of “Harvey”) is one of the greatest actors ever, so I try to get things from him while at the same time giving it my touch.”
Ham addressed the challenges of “interacting” with Harvey as a character that is only visible to Elwood. “Acting with an imaginary character is very similar to what is being done nowadays with CGI on the big screen,” Ham said. “What I tried to do is to always make it clear to the audience that Harvey is being a part of the scene.”
One of the most interesting storylines, and an undeniable highlight of the play, is the character Wilson. Wilson works at the psychiatric clinic and uses his “brute force” to keep the patients from leaving. He is played by Sabelo Mlaba, an international freshman from South Africa, who is also making his theatrical debut.
“This is my first play here at FPU, and my first play as me being an actor,” Mlaba said. “Doing such a big play as my first is like walking into gold. I feel honored and blessed being a part of this.”
“FPU is great and very welcoming,” Mlaba added. “The artist’s environment here is good and you can grow as an actor. Elizabeth is an incredible director; it is an honor to work with her and I am thankful to get so many lines in my debut role.”
The rehearsals for the play flowed through the final stages. From production to actors and director, the staff worked as a unit to make this an amazing experience for the FPU students and audience.
Remaining performances are at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12, 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, and at 7 p.m. each night Nov. 16-19. Tickets are $15 for general admission or $5 for members of the Fresno Pacific community. Tickets are available at the door or online at www.eventbrite.com/e/fpu-theater-presents-harvey-by-mary-chase-tickets-399615078457.