While many might be quick to chalk "Harvey" up to a tale of a man and his imaginary giant rabbit friend, they'd be overlooking an important character. See what you're missing in the Cal State Bakersfield production that opens this week.

Although the play is named for the 6-foot, 3.5-inch-tall imaginary rabbit, or pooka, that Elwood P. Dowd (Eric Pichardo) is seeing, it's Dowd's sister, Veta Simmons (Taylor Clark), who grows through the narrative.

"The person who goes on a journey is his sister," said director Dave Peterson. "She wants him to not see this rabbit. She learns to accept her brother and his strange friend."

Peterson points out that although many people remember James Stewart as Elwood in the classic 1950 film based on the play, it was actress Josephine Hull who won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Mary Chase, the show is about the siblings' struggle to co-exist as Elwood's behavior stymies Veta's social-climbing efforts. Her attempts to have him committed leads to a comedy of errors involving a motley crew of health professionals and strangers.

Leading an engaged cast was part of the draw for Peterson, a new assistant theater professor who joined the department in August.

"Another thing I like about this play is it is an ensemble piece. Most of the characters get a chance to shine. There are nice moments, nice interactions and sentiments."

The show also stars Natalie Love as Veta's daughter, Myrtle Mae, Trenton Benet and Brian Purcell as Elwood's doctors, Avery Gibson as nurse Ruth Kelly and Gaffney Divyang Motavar as Judge Omar, who is supportive of Elwood's beliefs.

For his first directing turn at the university, Peterson was excited to bring this light comedy to the stage.

"There’s a lot of venom and nastiness about in cultural conversations right now, a skepticism at the way things are. What this play is saying is that people are different than what we expect but maybe we greet those things with a openness and generosity."

Hoping that people view it as an "amusing engaging way to spend a couple of hours," he'd like audiences to embrace the spirit of the show.

"That laughter is the laughter of inclusion, not laughing at people. Laugh to embrace more things, have a bit more open mind for people or things we run into."

"Harvey" runs this weekend and next at the Dore Theatre on campus.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.

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