by Joshua Chamberlain
Despite its reputation as a comedy, Mary Chase’s Harvey offers a window into the impact of mental illness. Harvey, on stage at The Purple Rose through the end of August, tells the story of a man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot rabbit, much to the chagrin of his family members. Psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness play a large role in Harvey’s central conflict and the play ultimately asks whether befriending an invisible rabbit is the hallmark of eccentricity or perhaps symptomatic of a serious mental illness.
In an attempt to provide some insight into this dilemma, the Purple Rose recently hosted a talkback discussion, featuring members of the cast and mental health professionals from St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea. The talkback served as an attempt to engage, educate, and encourage members of the audience regarding mental illness, a subject that still carries a stigma. “We’re a little bit reluctant when it comes to talking about mental health,” said panel moderator, Lila Lazarus, who led the discussion on a variety of topics, including family counseling, and how characters in the play might benefit from group therapy and treatment for substance abuse.
Dr. Etienne Dehoorne, the Medical Director of Behavioral Health at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, spoke to how treatment has changed since Harvey was written in 1945. “That was really before medications became available,” he said. “Medications have really changed the field.” Dr. Dehoorne also described the nature of modern treatment, including St. Joseph’s inpatient therapy: “We try to treat patients as a whole person, not just the psychiatric aspects, but the medical components that might be playing a role in people’s presentations as well.”
Michelle Johnson, an inpatient behavioral nurse, agreed with Dr. Dehoorne, stating that the methods of treatment differ immensely from those depicted onstage. “Now, we have medications and coping skills groups that actually work. I think we’re in much better shape.”
The talkback also included an attempt to diagnose Elwood P. Dowd, the central character in Harvey, who befriends the imaginary six-foot rabbit that gives the play its title. Lissa Perrin, a Social Worker with Outpatient Behavioral Health at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea, suggested that Harvey’s companionship is perhaps the result of a mental illness, coupled with alcohol abuse. “If he were coming to us now, we’d probably talk with him about AA.” However, to Richard McWilliams, who plays Elwood, the character embodies a romantic view of the world, despite his problem with alcohol and struggle with reality. “That’s what this guy represents to me,” said McWilliams, “that there is a grander way to look at life.”
While the nature of Elwood’s condition remains ambiguous, the panelists all agreed that treating mental illness is of the upmost importance, with some of the members sharing their own stories. “I talked to a social worker,” said Purple Rose Artistic Director, Guy Sanville, recounting his own experience. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve talked to anybody and the cloud lifted a little bit. I was lucky. I was able to talk to somebody.”
Sanville’s story highlighted the importance of seeking treatment, something Michelle Johnson encouraged the entire audience to explore. “It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, how successful you are, nobody is immune from mental illness.” She continued by offering a moment of genuine insight: “It’s not a weakness,” she said. “It’s life.”
Harvey runs at the Purple Rose Theatre Company through August 26th. For ticket information, call (734)-433-7673 or visit purplerosetheatre.org.
For more information on St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and their Behavioral Health Services unit, visit www.stjoeschelsea.org/behavioralhealthservices.