Neal Herring’s Gentle Optimism Makes Me Believe in Pookas

By Sam Pynes

Harvey, Lofte Community Theatre, April 1, 2022 7PM

I always like visiting The Lofte: they have a very open and welcoming atmosphere and performing space. If you haven’t been there, you should really check it out. 

Before the show, Artistic Director Kevin Colbert welcomed the audience, including a couple who were celebrating their anniversary on April Fools (no joke), and a group of homeschoolers who are studying theatre this semester, and this play in particular. He went on to talk about the financial challenges that theaters still face with low turnout post-covid, their fundraising strategies for reducing their deficit, and their commitment to making their theater a welcoming place for those who still have health concerns.

Harvey introduces Elwood P. Dowd, an affable man with a make-believe, or perhaps not so make-believe, best friend who just happens to be a pooka. Thematically, it shares a kinship with Arsenic and Old Lace and You Can’t Take It With You, plays that address the age-old question of whether we really are the sane ones in a very crazy world, as well as an empathetic appreciation for the kooky folks in our lives who might be able to see something in life that we can’t. 

Less obviously, but perhaps more intrinsically, this is a story about friendliness and optimism, where a kind and warm character shines a gentle light on the ridiculousness of the mean world around them, and really listens to people, in the vein of Pollyanna, or even Bob Wiley from What About Bob. What at first appears to be a naive and vulnerable simplemindedness turns out to be a kind of larger wisdom.

Beyond that, this show appears to be about the cynicism and conformism of adulthood drumming the optimism and wonder out of people. As Elwood himself says, in the established dichotomy between a smart and pleasant personality, he has come to realize later in life that pleasant is better. In that sense, it is also like Mary Poppins, where Mr. Banks makes a similar realization in his return to childlike affability. Elwood talks a lot about the different bars he frequents, and another character sees the rabbit after visiting a bar himself, which makes me wonder if alcoholism is also a theme, though the bar does function as the place where Dowd mixes with the other people who are working out their sanity in fear and trembling, outside the societal conformity represented by the treatment at Chumley’s Rest. This story might also have a more specific, as well as metaphorical beef with early 20th Century psychiatry, as when after one character has a negative experience following a mixup at the sanitarium, she asks with exasperation if all they think about is sex. Based on the orderly’s behavior and Dr. Chumley’s odd fantasy, this does seem like a dig at Freud. Compared to the nominal authority in sanity, Jamion Biesterfeld’s Dr. Sanderson, who is playing out a repressed and complicated romantic dance with Christa Dunker’s Nurse Kelly, Elwood is innocent and straightforward and has no compunction or embarrassment about treating her with respect and admiration, telling her that she is beautiful, although he wants nothing from her.

Neal Herring plays a note-perfect Elwood P. Dowd, and I really don’t know how he could have done it better. Very sweet and optimistic characters always carry the danger of spilling into saccharinity, but he plays it with such innocent sincerity that you really can’t help but like him. He was very consistent with his addresses to “Harvey,” so that after a time you felt like you knew exactly where the pooka was at all times. He especially nailed Dowd’s key speeches at the heart of the play. John Payton gives a very natural and mature performance as Judge Gaffney, and the straight man is never a role to be underestimated. Wade Mumford’s Duane Wilson was unexpectedly one of my favorite characters, as his almost brutish and loyal single-mindedness contrasts starkly with Elwood’s gentleness. His characterizations were also very clear, and his freakouts were funny. I’m not sure they quite nailed the tone of the romantic pairing when he takes a shine to Natalie McGovern’s perky Myrtle Mae Simmons, which came off as a little uncomfortable. Rosalie Duffy’s (Veta Simmons) naturalistic performance was punctuated by the funniest moment in the show when she returns in a bedraggled stupor from the sanitarium. I also loved the contrast of Scott Clark’s Dr. Chumley in the second act as his very professional character frantically cracks under the pressure of meeting a pooka. Matt Jarvis only appears in one scene as E. J. Lofgren, but it is a key scene with a characterization that is worth waiting for.

The Lofte has a very large performing space, which must be difficult at times to fill visually. Harvey showcased a very large and beautifully painted set for the show’s two locations. I especially liked that the blue and yellow colors of the sanitarium were drawn from the flower portrait on the wall.

While this is a more than respectable staging of a classic show, with an unbelievably strong central performance, the pace seemed to drag consistently in its nearly three hour runtime. Stepping up the pace, and eliminating some of the air between lines would help give some sections more energy and cut down the length. Opening night’s intermission began at 8:50, and the curtain came down at 10. I did notice that there were a few line pauses and paraphrases, so the pace may come up naturally as the cast becomes more comfortable. As it is, it is a very enjoyable evening of theatre.

I happily recommend this theater and show to inject a little optimism into your week.

If you go: Harvey runs April 1-10 Thur-Sat 7PM and Sun 2PM. Tickets can be purchased online, (402) 234-2553, or

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless. Current Managing Editor of Appearing Locally.

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