James Fairchild knew what he wanted when he set out to cast the lead role for Playcrafters Barn Theatre's "Harvey."
"One of the qualities of Elwood is just an all-around nice guy, kind of an Everyman," the director of the comedy said. "And when you think of the nicest guy in the area in theater, you think of Mike Kelly."
"It's all an act," Kelly mumbled as the two were interviewed recently.
"I don't know a single person who has one negative thing to say about him," said Fairchild, who has acted with Kelly in numerous productions in The District Theatre in Rock Island.
The 48-year-old Kelly plays Elwood P. Dowd, a man who claims to have a best friend in an invisible, 6-foot-1½-inch rabbit in the title role — and a family member who wants him committed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy debuted in 1944 and has been a stage favorite in the 70 years since as well as a memorable movie in 1950 starring James Stewart.
"It is a sweet, sincere show that isn't necessarily about whether Elwood is crazy or not as much as it is about family, about acceptance, which we can all relate to," Kelly said. "It's about not judging people by what you see or, in Elwood's case, not see."
"The piece is just incredibly charming," Fairchild added. "Never once are you led to believe that Elwood is actually crazy. There are people in the play who think he's crazy, but aside from seeing an invisible rabbit, he's the wisest person in the show."
Theater to TV
For Kelly, playing Elwood is the latest in the dozen-plus productions that he's acted in since his intermission from theater roles ended in 2009.
The Sherrard, Ill., native attended Western Illinois University in Macomb on a theater scholarship, but "I got down there and realized I'd rather get into journalism and broadcasting," he recalled.
With his degree, he came to the Quad-Cities where he worked for seven years at WQAD as a reporter (including a trip to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War with local reserve units), morning news anchor and, eventually, producer.
He got "a little burned out" from the repetitiveness of the TV business and tried to pursue a dream of opening his own restaurant, but first getting management experience at Hardee's and Dairy Queen franchises.
Kelly left that 15 years ago to work for AT&T, where he is now a quality manager.
Fatherhood put Kelly's theatrical hobby on hold for about 20 years. He and his wife have two children, now ages 21 and 16.
"They take up a little time," he understated.
Back on stage
Kelly auditioned for "The Mousetrap" at Playcrafters in late 2008, going on stage in early 2009 and directed by Tristan Tapscott, the founder of The District Theatre in Rock Island.
He landed the part of Christopher Wren, a brash and strange architect in the Agatha Christie mystery.
That was the beginning of a plethora of roles for Kelly at Playcrafters and the District.
His favorite roles have included Trekkie Monster in the District's "Avenue Q" ("I stalked Tristan for years to do that," Kelly said) and Det. Sgt. Trotter in the District's version of "Mousetrap" earlier this year ("such a huge transformation," he said of the character).
He'll reprise his role as the mostly silent, dithering town mayor in the District original bluegrass musical "Big Rock Candy Mountain" later this month, and for its holiday-themed sequel in the fall.
Kelly said there's no theatrical bucket list of roles.
"I just take them as they come and I'm grateful for any of the opportunities I've been given," he said.
Kelly said he's always nervous before auditions.
"I've never walked into an audition thinking, 'Oh, I've got this one' or 'I'm the person they're looking for,'" he said.
Fairchild said Kelly is easy to direct.
"Mike has a very good skill of bringing himself to a character, which makes his portrayals all the more natural," he said. "Everything he's done is more natural, so he's not putting on a character, you're thinking, 'I believe this guy.'"
Believability is a priority for Kelly, especially facing off against the play's title character.
"You just have to visualize what a 6-foot-1½ (inch) tall rabbit would look like and just focus on that all the time," he said. "With any show, you have to withdraw any inhibitions. To Elwood, Harvey is just another person."
"Harvey," both Kelly and Fairchild said, is a snapshot of the 1940s, particularly with its dialogue and treatment of women, despite being written by a female playwright.
"I think Mary Chase kind of put it on stage and didn't shy away from it, because she wanted to show what it was like," Fairchild said.
Kelly said he had never seen a stage version of "Harvey," and only a few times saw the movie depiction.
"Of course what you remember is Jimmy Stewart. The hardest thing is to not do any sort of bad impersonation of him in the show. You have to do your own (interpretation)," he said. "And we've done a good job in our interpretation of what we think Mary Chase was trying to say."