Ted Sod: How did the idea of doing Harvey with Jim Parsons come about?
Scott Ellis: The production was my idea. It was a play that had been sent to me to look at and I was taken by it. I think I’m drawn to anything that has not been done often. I just thought it was a lovely story and I realized a lot of people didn’t know it. When we were thinking about casting and who we could cast as Elwood, Jim Parsons’s name came up and we went out to Los Angeles and did a reading with him. I thought he was wonderful and brought the qualities I was looking for in that role. That’s how it all came together.
Can you talk about the qualities you needed from the actor playing Elwood? Does it harken back to another time period?
This is one of those roles that I find fascinating, but some actors find challenging. The character really doesn’t change. It’s not an active journey as far as theatrical journeys go. Elwood just stays who he is from the beginning until the end. It’s everybody around him that does the changing, he stays the same. I think you have to have a really interesting actor and someone who brings a very unique and special quality to Elwood and Jim does that. You’ve got to believe that this gentleman has a friend who’s a six-foot-tall rabbit. He’s not insane and, by the end, the audience will hopefully say, “Okay, you know what, I’m going to go with that. If that’s what he says is true, I’m going to believe that.” There’s a special quality that you have to have for an audience to believe that you have an invisible friend like Harvey. Jim has this innate, off-kilter thing that he brings to this role that allows you to say, “I believe this guy.”
What traits did you need from the other actors?
The other characters have a much stronger through line. They’re all trying to change Elwood to make him better. They’re trying to help him in a way. For example, Veta, his sister, loves Elwood and would do anything for him. You have to believe that she might do something drastic because she cares so much about him.
Do you find the character of the taxi driver interesting?
Oh, definitely. It’s really the common man. He’s probably the only taxi driver in town. He shuttles people around all year. He’s the one that ultimately sees something in the human race that is very simple, but very real. And that’s what he brings to the plot. He tells people the truth, and it’s interesting that the person who does it isn’t part of the story until the very end.
Do you view Elwood as an alcoholic?
Here’s what’s important to keep in mind about that idea. Elwood drinks at the beginning of the play but he is not a raging alcoholic. Yes, he does spend time in the bar, but it’s important to know that that is not why he sees Harvey. He’s not a drunk who sees an imaginary friend. It was never written or ever played that way. If you were to play it that way it would be a dead end. On first reading, you might think, well, this guy’s just an alcoholic. But after repeated readings, you realize if the play is to work, the audience has to begin by thinking Elwood is the crazy one and the rest of the characters are sane. And then by the end of the play, the audience’s realization is the other way around. Elwood is the sane one and all the others are crazy. Elwood’s life is fairly straightforward. I’m not going to pretend that the guy doesn’t sit at a bar and have a couple of drinks now and then, because he does, but a lot of people can sit at a bar and have a drink or two and not be labeled as an alcoholic. I don’t think Mary Chase ever wrote it that way and based on the versions I’ve seen, it’s not played that way. None of the well-known productions ever played Elwood as a drunk.
The bar he invites people to is like his office.
Yes, exactly. He finds interesting people and he’s able to talk with them and open up to them. Maybe a drink or cocktail frees him up a bit and allows him and his guests to open up to each other.
Did you have to do research in order to direct this play?
Yes, I’ve done a lot. I’ve read all the other versions of the script. I went to the library and saw a revival production on tape that was produced on Broadway in the ‘70s with Jimmy Stewart repeating his famous film role. Helen Hayes played his sister Veta in that version. It was fascinating. I also found out that there had been a live production of it on television in the ‘50s with Art Carney. And so I tracked down a tape of it and that’s been terrific to watch. We’re taking pieces of dialogue from all of these different versions of the script and playing around with them. Don Gregory, who governs the estate, is allowing us to add certain lines that were used in the various incarnations of the text. Mary Chase was very involved in that Art Carney production on television and there are some things in it that are really quite lovely.
Who plays Veta in the Art Carney version?
What does the play mean to you?
Eighty per cent of the people I’ve mentioned the title to have never heard of Harvey. No one from the younger generation seems to know it. A certain age group knows it from the 1950 Jimmy Stewart movie. It’s not a play that’s done a lot. What’s so interesting is when you read it you think, what was it like when it was first performed? It must have been fascinating when people first took in this story. The way in which Mary Chase has structured the play is really sort of genius. You hear about Elwood and then you hear that he has a “friend”; that’s it, just a “friend.” Then you’re introduced to Elwood who then brings in his friend and you realize that he’s an imaginary friend, not a real friend. And then later on you find out he’s a rabbit, a pooka. I’m hoping that the audience really doesn’t know the whole journey and people will take the journey like they did the first time the play was produced. And, also, Jim Parsons is very important to this enterprise. You need an actor who can make the role of Elwood his own. After a few minutes you want the audience members who only know the movie version to think, Oh, I’m not imagining Jimmy Stewart in this anymore. I think that’s what Jim will be able to bring to it.
I sense this play deals with convention and how people get treated when they are different.
Yes, exactly. I think it’s so amazing to be working on this play now. Bullying and judgment are part of the national conversation. How are we to treat people who are different, who don’t fit into the norm so to speak? And why do we try to change them? Why can’t we embrace them? Why can’t we embrace those people in the world who aren’t a reflection of ourselves? Why can’t we embrace the individuality of everybody? That’s what finally happens to some of the characters at the end of the play. They get a better understanding of who Elwood and his friend Harvey are. I truly think everyone would really like to have a Harvey in their lives.
Harvey plays at Studio 54 through August 5, 2012. For more information, click here.
A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Harvey, Upstage