SALINAS >> The roots of The Western Stage run deep. It is currently enjoying its 40th anniversary season, and two of the seminal players who helped plant the seeds for the theater are back in Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning favorite, "Harvey." The play opens Friday.
The guest director is one of the "old pros" of The Western Stage, William Wolak. Wolak, who first worked at The Western Stage in 1980, has been directing and acting with the company for nearly 35 years.
"I reckon I've directed about 12 or 13 shows and acted in about 30," says Wolak. All the more impressive, since he is not on the year-round staff. Wolak travels here regularly from Stockton, where he taught theater at the University of the Pacific from 1975 to 2007.
Wolak has countless fond memories of The Western Stage, but it's "the one that got away" that tops the list.
In 1982 Wolak directed American Conservatory Theater (ACT) leading man Ray Burke in "Cyrano de Bergerac." Coming out of auditions, a pretty, young and unknown ACT graduate named Annette Bening — yes, THAT Annette Bening — was cast as Roxanne opposite Burke. Wolak remembers, "I came within one one-thousandth of an inch of having her until she called two weeks later and had to drop out of the show." But even without Bening, Wolak calls "Cyrano" his favorite Western Stage project.
Of his latest play, Wolak says, "'Harvey' is a chance to get away from the dog-eat-dog world of success and stepping over bodies to get to the top and go to a world of companionship, camaraderie and generosity. ... It's a study in accepting — accepting people for who they are."
"Harvey" is a simple, beautiful and perplexing story of both the problems created and insights gained when gentle, bar-hopping Elwood P. Dowd introduces folks to Harvey, the 6-foot-3-inch white rabbit that is his constant companion. Dowd is the only person who can see Harvey — kind of. No spoilers here.
The film version of "Harvey" featured James Stewart as Dowd. It was considered one of the actor's most memorable roles, showcasing his charm, warmth and grace. He was even nominated for an Academy Award. For The Western Stage, resident artist Jeff Heyer — one of the area's most engaging actors — is sure to have audiences forgetting Jimmy Stewart by the end of the first scene.
Also included in the cast is another seminal influence, The Western Stage's co-founder, Rocco Tavani. Tavani not only helped start The Western Stage, but actually came up with the name. (If that isn't planting the first seed, I don't know what is.) This will be Tavani's first time back with the company in 15 years.
Mark Shilstone-Laurent is a member of The Herald's Critics Circle.
If you go
What: The Western Stage presents "Harvey"
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 23
Where: Studio Theater, Hartnell College, 411 Central Ave., Salinas
Tickets: $24 at 755-6816 or westernstage.com