By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Nov 22, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Friendship is a great thing, but it can bring with it challenges to your care, derision from doubters and insinuations of insanity.

But the fact is that anyone who has a friendship knows the truth – that friendship will win out.

That’s the crux of the story in "Harvey," the Pulitzer Prize winner that opened at the Milwaukee Rep Friday night. There are plays that hit you with a hammer and drag you inside, but not this one. It’s got an easygoing charm that brings smiles and nods more than guffaws, but it’s a very warm experience.

It’s hard to believe that a frothy confection like "Harvey" won the Pulitzer Prize over Tennessee Williams’ "The Glass Menagerie," one of the best American plays ever written. But the Pulitzer panel must have recognized something that has made this an oft-produced play since its birth in 1944.

What they saw, and what the opening night audience saw, was the idea of hope and friendship symbolized by an imaginary six-foot-tall white rabbit named Harvey.

Harvey is the friend of Elwood P. Dowd, who lives with his sister and niece in a big house but spends most of his time with his invisible friend in a scattering of downtown bars. He likes his drink, but those who cast him as some kind of reprobate are missing the point.

The drinking in bars is, for Elwood, a chance to spread his warmth to strangers and to bask in the company they provide. "They look at my face," he says, "and before too long, we are talking. They are becoming friends."

Elwood – played by Jonathan Gillard Daly – and Harvey – played by, well, our imagination – are surrounded by a cadre of the well meaning, all of whom think that they know best how to get rid of the rabbit and restore some semblance of sanity to both Elwood and the household.

The parade is led by his sister, Veta, played with engaging madness by Deborah Staples. She is eventually aided and abetted by Dr. Harold Chumley (James Pickering), the psychiatrist who runs a sanitorium; Dr. Lyman Sanderson (Gabriel Ruiz), his assistant; Nurse Ruth Kelly (Kelley Faulkner); orderly Duane Wilson (Justin Brill); and Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae (Kristina Loy).

The idea is to commit Elwood so that he gets help and Veta gets control of the estate. As everyone knows, however, it is Veta who gets committed first and Elwood who goes free with his friend, headed to another bar to make more friends.

Elwood Dowd, memorably played in the movie by Jimmy Stewart, is a man of whimsy and uncensored belief. Tell him something and he believes. He expects the same in return even though he is faced with an armageddon of constant disbelief and ridicule.

None of it can turn Elwood away from his friend. Let them make fun of him and let them make fun of Harvey. Let friendship prove to be carelessly established. Nothing will keep Elwood and Harvey from being best of friends.

Daly is an absolute marvel as Dowd. He wears his comfort like a shroud and proves to be a man of perfect manners, chivalrous demeanor and imperturbable mien. He’s a happy man, and his friendship is a happy friendship. There are no demands on each other, and Daly is the epitome of a spreader of joy and salve for a tortured soul.

Staples is just about the best Veta I’ve ever seen, and this may be the sixth or seventh time I’ve seen this play. She’s got range that takes her from a tightly wrapped society diva to a frazzled hunk of regret and uncertainty.

This play is full of chaos, and Dowd is the serenity in the middle of the whole thing. This production, directed by KJ Sanchez, is sometimes in danger of running off the tracks. But this seasoned and veteran cast doesn’t let things get so out of hand that we are lost.

This is not the most profound of plays, but it’s a delightful evening during the holiday season. And it’s a nice lesson about how wonderful it can be to have a good friend, a new friend and a trusted friend – even if he’s an imaginary giant rabbit.

"Harvey" runs through Dec. 21 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.