This three-act comedy follows the frustrated attempts of society matron Veta Louise Simmons to keep the eccentricities of her brother, Elwood P. Dowd, from public view. Elwood drinks and keeps introducing strangers to a companion whom no one else can see: a six-foot-one-and-a-half-inch-tall rabbit named Harvey. Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae worries that her Uncle Elwood’s preoccupation with Harvey will scare away any marriage prospects for her. In the opening scene the guest of honor at a piano recital hosted by Veta is frightened away when Elwood tries to introduce her to Harvey. This incident is the last straw for Veta. In the next scene she visits Chumley’s Rest, a sanatorium for mental patients, and asks to have her brother Elwood committed. As Veta gives the information to the head nurse, Ruth Kelly, it becomes clear that Kelly is interested in Dr. Sanderson, the new assistant to Dr. Chumley. As Veta becomes more and more agitated in describing the effect that “living with Harvey” has had on her nerves, Dr. Sanderson begins to suspect that Veta’s attempt to commit Elwood is just a cover-up for her own psychosis. He orders Veta restrained and apologizes to Elwood for what he now thinks is his blunder. The fact that Elwood really does claim to see Harvey is comically suspended, as his attempts to introduce the rabbit to the psychiatrist are continually interrupted.
When Elwood leaves, Kelly’s romantic interest in Dr. Sanderson begins to unravel. Elwood’s charm and polite attention to her contrast sharply with Sanderson’s professional aloofness. In retaliation, Kelly disavows any interest in Sanderson. When Dr. Chumley arrives and finds a hat left behind from Elwood’s visit, he notices two holes cut in the hat—just the right size and position to accommodate rabbit ears. He concludes that Elwood is the madman after all and berates Sanderson for misdiagnosing Veta. In an emotional reaction, and in fear of possible lawsuits, he fires Sanderson.
Act 2 returns the action to Elwood’s home, where Myrtle Mae is conferring with Judge Gaffney in the attempt to have Elwood declared insane. The popularity of Elwood in the community and his own personal affection for the man make the judge reluctant to commit Elwood to an institution. Suddenly Veta appears at the door, disheveled from her ordeal with the psychiatrists. Dr. Chumley arrives, with his strong-arm orderly Wilson, looking for Elwood. While Veta threatens to sue Dr. Chumley, Wilson flirts with Myrtle Mae. When everyone leaves the room on various errands, Elwood arrives and replaces the portrait of his mother, the focal point of the room, with one of himself and a giant rabbit—obviously Harvey. Elwood leaves and Veta returns. When she notices the painting, she knows Elwood has been there.
The scene returns to Chumley’s Rest, four hours later. Dr. Sanderson is packing to leave; Kelly attempts to express her true feelings about him, but Sanderson’s brusqueness makes it impossible. When Elwood arrives, it is clear that Wilson thinks he has harmed Dr. Chumley, but Elwood says that the psychiatrist is with Harvey. When Chumley appears in act 3, he asks for a private meeting with Elwood. When the two are alone, Chumley reveals that he, too, now sees Harvey, and sees Elwood as a true visionary rather than a crackpot. He is selfish enough, however, to pretend to agree with Dr. Sanderson’s diagnosis, tricking Elwood into taking a serum that will “cure” him from the “hallucination” of seeing the giant rabbit. By doing so, Chumley hopes to “keep” Harvey for himself. Elwood agrees to the injection to please Veta, but at the last moment Veta realizes that making Elwood “normal” will erase his finest qualities: affability, generosity, magnanimity. When it comes down to it, she realizes that she will miss Harvey. Veta and Myrtle Mae, now reconciled to living with an eccentric uncle and a six-foot rabbit, leave to go home. Elwood follows, and the door...
(The entire section is 3,234 words.)