Popular community theatre actor and director Mike Busswood was looking forward to directing one of his favourite plays – Mary Chase’s 1944 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Harvey – as the first show in White Rock Players Club’s 2018-2019 season this fall.
Sadly, Busswood, a Langley-based veteran of the White Rock stage, passed away in July as a result of long-standing health issues.
But much like Harvey himself – the benign but mischievous pooka (spirit) companion of gentle bachelor Elwood P. Dowd – Busswood, and his irrepressible sense of humour, is all over the production, which runs Oct. 12 to Oct. 27 at the Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.
Now being directed in true ‘show-must-go-on’ tradition by his wife Cathe, with the assistance of friend and fellow actor Jeff Wyndham, the whimsical play has been strongly influenced by Busswood’s ideas about the staging and the non-traditional set, faithfully built to his specifications by Tim Driscoll.
“He was very excited he was going to be directing Harvey,” Cathe told Peace Arch News this week.
“We’d done the show for the Langley Players in 1994, and he really liked it and had so many wonderful and weird ideas about doing it which we got to talk about for several months.
“It’s been my refuge. I feel closest to Mike when I’m directing it.
“It’s not been sad – it’s been a joyful, happy, family experience,” she said, adding that the actors – who were auditioned and cast by Busswood – have all taken the task of fulfilling his vision to heart.
“They’ve all felt ‘we’re doing it for Mike’ whether or not they knew him or had worked with him before,” she said. “What he was dreaming of, the actors gave more. He chose such a great cast and they took it to another level that, I think, far exceeded Michael’s expectations.”
A recent workshop with former White Rock resident and formidably talented theatrical director Dean Paul Gibson scared them, she acknowledged, “but it also challenged them to do even better, and they have.”
The play is a fable about Elwood, a gentle soul from a socially prominent family, who one day met Harvey and decided to leave the stressed-out rat-race of contemporary life behind.
“He chose to be pleasant,” Cathe said. “He realized that if we just stop and be kind to one another, what a difference that makes. We can become kinder, gentler people.”
It’s a message that still resonates, she added.
“Even though it’s set in the late 1940s, it’s excellent material for this day and age. It makes you stop and think – you should take time to smell the flowers, you should take time to listen to somebody’s story.”
Elwood does drink, Cathe said, but he couldn’t be described as a ‘drunk’.
“He likes his drink. He’s been known to get a little tipsy. He also likes to meet and talk with people, and a lot of those people he meets in bars, where they’re more likely to see Harvey, after all.”
But no one should imagine that Harvey is a liquor-induced hallucination, she said.
“Harvey is invisible, not imaginary,” she said. “We leave the audience in no doubt about that. He does exist – and he’s revealed himself to other people, too.”
“Mike cast him because he saw a lot of himself in Eric. He knew he’d be able to pull out all the small subtle elements of Elwood, and what it would mean to such a man to have a Harvey in his life.”
Driving the play is the anxiety felt by Elwood’s sister Veta Louise (Jane Mantle) – Elwood has embarrassed her by introducing Harvey to guests at one of her tea parties, including society grand dame Ethel Chauvenet (June Ainsworth) – and his niece Myrtle Mae (Jessie Klotz) who fears she will never be married because of her ‘crazy’ uncle.
They persuade family friend Judge Gaffney (Jamie Ives) that Elwood should be committed to a sanatorium for his own good – but everything goes chaotically comedic when the wrong family member is committed instead.
Also featured in the cast are Cale Walde (Dr. Sanderson), Adrian Shaffer (Nurse Kelly), Dovreshin MacRae (orderly Duane Wilson), Raymond Hatton (Dr. Chumley) and Rosemary Schuster (Mrs. Chumley) and Dave Carroll in the small, but key, role of cabbie E.J. Lofgren.
Cathe said the influence of her late husband doesn’t stop at the direction of the show.
“Whenever we needed little prop things – a pen or something – I brought something that belonged to Mike. He’s all over the stage.”
The late actor – well-known for his benignly mischievous side and imposing height, much like Harvey – is much in evidence backstage, too, Cathe added.
Right after he worked in the Langley production of Harvey, Cathe said, Busswood decided to disguise himself as the pooka for Halloween, and a picture was taken of him in costume.
“Eric has the picture of Mike posted up backstage and he talks to him before he goes on,” she said.
So that means…
“Exactly,” she laughed.
“Mike is Harvey. It is Mike – and he’s playing havoc with everything, as always.”
Harvey has reduced-rate previews Oct. 10 and 11, a gala opening on Oct. 12. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees on Oct. 14 and Oct. 21.
For tickets and information, call the box office at 604-536-7535.