You’ll believe in what you can’t see . . .‘Harvey’ . . . light-hearted comedy for the whole family

Shyela Stephens (from left), Michael Pulliam, Michael A. Harrell and Ross Young add to the mayhem in Maui OnStage’s 2017-18 season opener, “Harvey,” which opens Friday and continues through Oct. 15 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $20 to $40. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 242-6969 or order online at • Jack Grace photo

What would you do if someone introduced you to their best friend — an invisible, six-foot-one-and-a-half-inch tall white rabbit named Harvey? That’s the question that will hover over Maui OnStage’s production of “Harvey,” which opens tomorrow night at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.

“Harvey,” the light-hearted Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic play by Mary Chase, tells the tale of the mild-mannered and pleasantly eccentric Elwood P. Dowd (Michael Pulliam) and his unseen best friend, Harvey. Harvey is a pooka, a benevolent but mischievous creature of Celtic folklore that can take on many different forms, human or animal — in this case, a statuesque white rabbit.

Harvey is very real to Elwood, but invisible to everyone else. So, when Elwood starts introducing Harvey to people around town, he naturally raises a few eyebrows. He also becomes a perpetual source of embarrassment to his social-climbing sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Beth Garrow). Desperate to be rid of Elwood, and, by extension, Harvey, so she can restore her family’s reputation and improve the marriage prospects of her daughter, Myrtle Mae (Hana Valle), Veta decides to commit him to Dr. William R. Chumley’s (Bennett Cale) sanitarium.

As you might imagine, in this delightful comedy of errors, things don’t go according to plan: The attending psychiatrist, Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Michael A. Harrell), mistakenly commits Veta instead of her brother — and chaos ensues.

The story behind “Harvey” is as sweetly endearing as the play itself. In 1942, Chase, an Irish-American journalist and playwright, penned the play for her neighbor, a widow whose son had been killed in action during World War II.

Hana Valle (left) and Beth Garrow watch horrified when Michael Pulliam (center), as Elwood P. Dowd, wipes something from his invisible friend, Harvey. • Brett Wulfson photo

Years later, in a radio interview, Chase recalled: “She began to haunt me. Could I ever think of anything to make that woman laugh again? I knew she wouldn’t laugh at a comedy about sex or money or politics. I kept looking for ideas and rejecting them. Then, one morning, I awoke at five o’clock and saw a psychiatrist walking across our bedroom floor followed by an enormous white rabbit and I knew I had it.”

In 1944, the play opened on Broadway to critical acclaim and provided some much-needed comic relief to war-weary audiences.

And to say it was a smash hit would be an understatement. One year after “Harvey’s” Broadway debut, Chase won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for the play, beating out Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

In 1950, a film version of “Harvey” starring Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull made Elwood P. Dowd and his invisible sidekick household names once again. Jimmy Stewart’s performance as Elwood earned him an Academy Award nomination; he once said it was the best role of his career. Josephine Hull won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Veta Louise. Both Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull appeared in Broadway productions of “Harvey,” too.

Over the years, “Harvey” has been revived on stage and on screen. Although it was written 75 years ago and set in the 1940s, it hasn’t lost its relevance or its charm. In fact, “Harvey” is ranked No. 35 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Funniest American Films of All Time and is the fourth longest-running play on Broadway.

Dale Button, the director of Maui OnStage’s production of “Harvey,” describes the play as a whimsical, laugh-out-loud comedy with a tender heart.

“It’s a story about relationships,” he explained. “There are so many relatable characters. You’ll find yourself saying, ‘Oh, that’s me! Or turning to the person next to you and saying, ‘Oh, that’s you!”

And then there’s the play’s central mystery: Is Harvey real or merely a figment of Elwood’s imagination?

Well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Maui OnStage’s production of “Harvey” features a stellar 12-member cast, including Pulliam, Garrow, Valle, Cale, Harrell, Faith Harding, Cindy Reeves, Shyela Stephens, Ross Young, Marsi Smith, Scott M. Smith and V. Wolfe Young. “Harvey” is appropriate for audience members of all ages.