Tag Archives: Harvey

When My Mom Had Tea With Mary Chase

Annawyn Shamas

By Laura Shamas

My mother, Annawyn Shamas, has just finished directing Mary Chase’s Harvey again at her church in Colorado. Harvey is a very successful play. Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it in 1945, as only the fourth woman to win one; even in 2015, only 14 women have won or shared the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. [1] When Harvey opened on Broadway in 1944, it was directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom The Tony Awards are named.[2]

Harvey became a very popular 1950 film starring the beloved Jimmy Stewart as a middle-aged drinker, Elwood P. Dowd, who insists that he has a six-foot one invisible rabbit friend named Harvey (but it’s really “a pooka” from Celtic mythology). Remakes of Harvey are still discussed in Hollywood, including a 2009 round that was helmed by Steven Spielberg but fizzled out. The play was successfully revived in 2012 on Broadway starring Jim Parsons; in his The New York Times review, however, critic Charles Isherwood bemoans that Harvey won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Maybe there are others who feel that Williams’ two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire and A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) are not enough recognition for Williams, but one wonders if a review of Harvey is the appropriate platform for such retrospective advocacy.

My mother and members of her church have a very personal connection to Harvey, because in 1981, one of them called the playwright after finding her number listed in the Denver phone book and asked if they could meet her. And Mary Chase kindly invited them over for tea. [3]

Mary Chase

So on a Sunday in October, my mother and two other members of the cast went over to the Chase home in an older and exclusive part of Denver, not far from the Botanical Gardens. Ron Hamilton, who played Elwood P. Dowd, and Pete Jenks, who was the cabbie, were the other lucky invitees. When they arrived, Chase’s husband Robert (a longtime editor of The Rocky Mountain News) and a producer from Canada greeted them, along with Chase herself. Chase was working with the producer at the time on a musical version of the play, slated to star Donald O’Connor.

My mother recalls Chase’s warmth, graciousness, and loveliness as they were served tea and cookies. She really liked Mary Chase. She remembers asking Chase what inspired Harvey, which is set in Denver, but was too star-struck to remember Chase’s exact answer. Later she learned that Chase wanted to cheer those who were grieving the loss of loved ones in World War II. Among other theater topics they discussed were: an appreciation for the brilliant, sweet and loyal character of Elwood P. Dowd; whether “Love and Marriage” was from Plain and Fancy or the musical TV version of Our Town, starring Frank Sinatra; and specific details of their own upcoming production. Although it was a church production and not a professional one, Chase made them all feel so special and supported their efforts. My mother believes that Harvey is a true American comedic classic that withstands the test of time. Her entire cast later did go to Fairfax between 18th and 19th streets in Denver to see if they, too, might actually see a tall rabbit leaning against a lamppost.

The 2015 Cast, with Ron Hamilton as Elwood (center) with Norma Austermann as Veta Louise (seated)

A few days after their visit, they were extremely shocked to learn of Mary Chase’s death. She died of a heart attack at her home at the age of 75. Deeply saddened, the group dedicated their production to her.

There is one specific sentiment that my mom recalls from her tea with Mary Chase. Upon learning that my mother had a daughter who wrote plays, Chase said: “Please tell her to keep trying, to keep at it. Tell her never to give up!”

And so, I pass this story to you: Keep at it and Happy Holidays!

[1] Zona Gale, Susan Glaspell, Zoe Akins won it before Chase. In 1956, Frances Goodrich shared a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Albert Hackett for The Diary of Anne Frank. Since then, Ketti Fring, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, Margaret Edson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Quiara Alegria Hudes, and Annie Baker have won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
[2] Both Mary Chase and Antoinette Perry were from Denver, Colorado.
[3] This event launched a drama group called The Encore Players at their church that’s been active for 34 years.

Same Shoe, Different Foot

I’ve been reading a lot of plays lately – some current, most not – and I’m starting to see double, hate Neil Simon, and long for a new reading list…

You see, I’m part of the play selection committee at our community theater, and we’ve had a number of plays submitted for consideration in the 2012-13 season.  It’s an interesting position to be in, as the community I’m currently a part of isn’t likely to take to something like Bruce Norris’ The Pain and the Itch (although I love it), Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (does it get more visually poetic than that?) or even Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (though it is under consideration with a bevy of voiced hesitancies – hesitancies even though it won the Olivier and Tony and makes me pee my pants with writerly joy!  Ack!)

So instead I’m re-reading The Rainmaker, A Shayna Maidel, and meeting Harvey and other plays I might not normally pick up (like Don’t Dress for Dinner, which is pee-your-pants funny!) And each of these plays, while interesting or moving in their own right, have been pretty outside my “cup of tea” as a reader, and as a writer…

So I have to step out of the “What does Tiffany like” comfort zone and into the “What would this community like” (not-as-comfortable) zone.  It’s a super strange position to occupy, but I’ve found that (while frustrating at times) being forced to shift one’s artistic POV like this can be enlightening, educational, and overall good for the writer’s soul…

Because it forces you to thing commercially.

It forces you to think about the community you’re living in/hoping to work in.

It forces you to think like anything but a writer.

Which then makes you turn around and look at your own work with a clearer eye to what a theatre might need/want vs. what your little muse thinks is pretty.

When’s the last time you can say you looked at your own work like that?  Don’t we usually sit down with some characters/a story idea/whatever form your genesis usually tends to be, and a heart full of blood-pumping enthusiasm with very little thought of what a theatre needs?

I’d like to think that all the producing and committee-sitting I’ve done this past year is going to help me ask that question next time the story romance hits me…  not so I can bury my idea in the “Nobody gives a shit” box (maybe I’ll write about that tomorrow) but so that as I cook and scheme and start to work, I can think more realistically about how to develop my idea to be produceable…

After all, I’m not writing for my drawer, am I?