James Black shares the stage with an invisible 6-foot white rabbit. Alley Theatre's resident rock star of iconic roles of the American canon takes on the lovable Elwood P. Dowd in Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Harvey, running through May 9. Crashing through bucket-list roles with lightning speed, Black is ready for one of the most endearing characters in American theater.
Over the past few seasons, he's played James Tyrone Jr. in A Moon for the Misbegotten, Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and this past fall, the Stage Manager in Our Town.
Those are just a taste of the behemoth characters he's tackled over his 22-year Alley career. Black knows his way around a warhorse play, often adding an unexpected spin.
This is Black's first Dowd though, but his second Harvey. He played the psychiatrist in an earlier production. It doesn't get more classic than Harvey. Who here has not at least seen the 1950 James Stewart movie?
"It's a fantastic part; a role entered in American folklore," Black says. "Still, anytime you do a classic play you find yourself in the shadow of perfectionism. The film is very different than Mary Chase's script. If you have just seen the film, you haven't really seen Harvey."
He's right, Harvey is billed as a comedy-fantasy. It's too easy on film. On stage, it's a whole different ball game. "The piece exists much more successfully in the theater," Black says. "You are coming to use your imagination."
Harvey, a Pooka from Celtic mythology, appears to Dowd, much to the horror of his sister, his niece and the entire mental health establishment. It's not only the rabbit that's invisible in Chase's clever scenario. "Elwood is not even in the majority of the play," Black says. "It's more about the effects of the invisible."
According to Black, Chase's play is riddled with red herrings. Is Dowd a nut, an alcoholic or just a super eccentric well-meaning man? "The drinking is a clever plot device, it clouds things up," Black says. "Although, Harvey is the real drinker, not Elwood. Plus, bars were more social establishments back then. It's the place that allows Dowd to minister to the people around him."
Harvey also speaks to the notion of sanity in a chaotic world. "This was a time when people thought mental illness could be cured like the flu," Black says. "The play deals with art vs. science. Remember Harvey is invisible to those who define life by facts and reality. He only appears to those who can open their imagination and let him in. Harvey chooses who he is visible to. He selects Elwood because of his innate goodness."
The Pasadena native first came to the Alley on a date with girl. Black can recall both the girl and the play. After a stint in film and other small theaters, he showed up on the Alley steps with a resume and a hope.
Some 24 years later, he's still there making us laugh, cry and think. "The acting company concept is rare these days," Black says. "There are a few of us still doing this. In commercial theater it's about the next job. Here, there are no dreams of going to Broadway. The piece you see is it and has to exist in those 25 performances. We give it our all. That's what is precious about the regional system."
The relationship between the other actors over time is another rarity.
As for the rock star business, the self-confessed music freak owns three guitars, keeps his iPod fully loaded with everything from punk rock to Vaughan Williams, and can play at least four chords. "I like to sling my guitar over my shoulder," Black says. "I imagine I'm Keith Richards, but I probably look more like Elmer Fudd."
Truthfully, his schedule is grueling. It's a downtime-what's-that, situation. Learning lines and lying on the couch are his hobbies. Black wouldn't want it any other way.
"To do this in my hometown, in an industry with a 94 percent unemployment rate," Black says. "The experience is simply extraordinary. We are having a blast working on this play. It's been one hell of a ride."