Jim Parsons Pulls a Rabbit Out of His Hat for Broadway's Harvey
By Mervyn Rothstein
Beloved for playing a quirky social outsider on TV's "The Big Bang Theory," Jim Parsons talks about his passion for the stage as he begins crafting the equally odd misfit Elwood P. Dowd in Broadway's Harvey.
Jim Parsons has two TV Emmys, but deep inside he's a man of the theatre.
"Theatre was my first love," Parsons says. "I can't take the theatre out of me. And I wouldn't want to. To me it's home. For an actor — maybe not all actors, but for the type I feel I am and the type I want to be — there's not a better place to hone what it is you do."
Parsons won the 2010 and 2011 Emmys for Best Actor in a Comedy Series by portraying theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory." Now, on summer break from CBS, he is again romancing his first love, starring on Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Harvey. He's playing Elwood P. Dowd, an otherwise ordinary man who says he has an invisible friend named Harvey — a pooka, or mythological creature, who resembles a 6-foot-3-½-inch-tall rabbit.
Mary Chase's classic 1944 comedy won the Pulitzer Prize and lasted 1,775 performances, making it the sixth-longest-running play in Broadway history. Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tonys are named, directed; Frank Fay was the first Dowd. Jimmy Stewart portrayed Dowd in the 1950 movie. Parsons' co-stars are Jessica Hecht and Charles Kimbrough; Scott Ellis directs.
Parsons, 39, grew up in Houston and made his stage debut in school at age six as the Kola-Kola bird in The Elephant's Child. He was hooked on theatre.
"Even five years into doing 'Big Bang Theory,' the scales are still tipped for me so heavily in theatrical experience," Parsons says. "Whether it was children's theatre, or Shakespeare in the Park in Houston, or free theatre in a converted warehouse in downtown Houston" — or college at the University of Houston, or the Old Globe/University of San Diego graduate program in classical theatre — the stage was where he learned his craft.
Parsons has the Texas accent that's part of the Sheldon Cooper essence, but there's nary a hint of the character's hubris. His non-TV voice is friendly and unassuming, with the sincerity of an actor who loves his craft.
Last year he appeared on Broadway in the Tony-winning revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. (Ben Brantley of The New York Times called him "terrific.") One reason he has returned again, he says, is that he misses "the immediacy" of stage acting. "We have an immediacy to our TV show because we have a live studio audience. But there are major differences. Being in TV, we get to do it again and again until it's 'right.' There's a part of me that likes the other way, that aspect of theatre where there's no chance to go back."
But most important "is that I've not worked in any other medium that offers as much time to get to know a story, and a character, as theatre does. The TV schedule is essentially four or five days to get in touch with the story you're doing that week. You play the same character every time, so there are certain things that do carry over, but as far as the story, as far as the words — and the words are ever changing through those four or five days — you don't get a chance to sink down into the script."
What has he discovered about Harvey, and Elwood P. Dowd? On the surface, "it's a somewhat simple tale." But what's complicated, fascinating, "is how it's going to translate, depending on the perspective of the person watching it — depending on where they are in their lives, where their heart lies, how they look at the world. Because I think this play is about that. It's interesting in the play to see who can see this pooka, this rabbit, and who is willing to admit they can see it, what their reaction is when they've seen it, when they think they've seen it — do they run in fear, do they lie and say they haven't seen it, do they furtively admit to somebody finally that they're scared to death because they did?"
In Elwood's case, Harvey "seems to have set him free, to have knocked off layers of tension, of worry, anything that gets in the way of making full contact with people," says Parsons. In Elwood there is "freedom, peacefulness, happiness."
There's something about the story, "about this man's relationship to the world around him, and everybody else's reaction to that relationship, that feels timely. There's a real connectedness Elwood seems to have to the literal world around him that everybody else seems to be viewing as disconnectedness. Everyone else seems to feel he's missing the boat. I think that in many ways Elwood is riding on the boat," perhaps even "captain of his boat. He very much feels the waters of these seas."
How is Parsons riding the waters of his seas? "I love playing Sheldon Cooper," he says, and he expects to do so however many years the series continues. He's been cast in the movie of "The Normal Heart."
More Broadway? "God yes," he says.
"The whole time I've been an actor, from early in Houston, my goal has been to work — to keep doing it. I feel at my most satisfied as a human being when I'm working on a role."
The Roundabout Theatre Company's Harvey begins performances May 18 at Studio 54. Visit roundabouttheatre.org.
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