Gosh, everybody loves “Harvey” — the play, if not the rabbit. And from personal experience, too. Mention “Harvey” in a roomful of older people and chances are a good number of them have taken roles in a college or community theater production, and at least one man will have played Harvey’s devoted friend Elwood P. Dowd, the role originated on stage by Frank Fay and portrayed by James Stewart in the 1950 movie.

Having played on Broadway from 1944 until 1949, “Harvey” is the sixth-longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history. It earned playwright Mary Chase a Pulitzer Prize in 1945. To acquire screen rights, Universal Pictures paid what was then the highest price in film history for a single property. The movie, which garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Stewart and an Oscar for Josephine Hull, who played his sister in the story, ranks among the top films of all time in any number of lists.  Like apple pie and Santa Claus, “Harvey” is loved by generations, and the production now being presented by the Belfast Maskers at their waterfront playhouse offers the chance for the senior set to rekindle an old acquaintance and for younger folks to make a new friend.

What’s behind the popularity of “Harvey”? It is as comfortable as an old shoe, with easy jokes about drunks, crazies and society matrons. It’s warm and, especially for those who can touch and feel Elwood’s best friend, an invisible six-foot-something rabbit, fuzzy. Also fuzzy in terms of vision after Elwood’s extended happy hours at Charlie’s tavern.

“Harvey” may not be the original feel-good entertainment, but it had a momentous gestation, arising from the fear and uncertainty of World War II. Chase labored over her play in the two years spanning what was arguably the darkest period of modern times. She set out to spread cheer, and Elwood, Harvey and the rest have done just that for almost 70 years.

Elwood can be seen as the ultimate free spirit.  Good-looking, educated and well-heeled, he is said to have perfect manners and be generous by nature. He enjoys the attention of women but is not burdened by any commitment. He’s not burdened by anything. He spends his days drinking with his unseen rabbit friend and whoever else happens along. With Harvey’s congenial companionship, Elwood is a happy, carefree man. The action of the play — and its humor — lies in Elwood’s interaction with the other characters, all of whom seem to have a very clear idea of just how things should be, but aren’t.

Elwood’s sister Veta and her daughter Myrtle Mae are at the end of their ropes with Elwood’s attentions to Harvey —  and Harvey’s threat to their social standing. When Veta finally moves to have Elwood institutionalized, the staff at the local sanitarium, Chumley’s Rest, aren’t sure which of the siblings should be put away, and laughable chaos ensues when Elwood is sent on his way.

Under the able direction of Angela Bonacasa, who guided last fall’s memorable “The Mousetrap,” the Maskers serve up this spirited tale with style and spunk. As Elwood P. Dowd, Maskers veteran James Clayton convincingly portrays the soul of congeniality. Even with his obvious eccentricity, Elwood’s warm, unhurried manner — richly conveyed by Mr. Clayton’s mellifluous tones — commands almost universal respect and affection.

Charlotte Herbold, playing Elwood’s long-suffering sister Veta, probably has the most fun with her part. It is Veta who has to endure one calamity after another, and we are all the more pleased that she listens to her better instincts when push comes to shove.

As Veta’s daughter Myrtle Mae, Valerie Philbrick gets to portray the spinster-in-training. She has the prissy walk down pat.  Doug Scott plays Judge Gaffney, the Dowd family lawyer, and Latricia Saucier the maid.  Poor Christine Cox! One can imagine she auditions hoping to land the Fairy Godmother or a similar role, but she keeps getting cast as the old bag — this time snooty grande dame Mrs. Chauvenet, whose hat decoration must surely have had its beginnings in the ocean depths.

Maskers stalwart Erik Perkins is Dr. Sanderson at Chumley’s Rest, effectively the line officer of the prestigious sanitarium. He may have an affair going with his attractive assistant Nurse Kelly, portrayed by Katie Underhill, but they’re both playing hard to get. The Tracy-Hepburn style of barbed dialogue was gaining ground in Hollywood at the play’s writing and is emulated by this young couple with only partial success.

Greg Marsanskis makes a welcome return to the Maskers stage as Dr. Chumley, the blustering closet romantic who heads the institution. Dorothy Wilson is bubbly Mrs. Chumley, who keeps an eye on their social calendar. Martin Long plays the goon on the sanitarium’s staff. Also making a return is David Woodbury as E.J. Lofgren, the cab driver who utters the single-most-operative line of the play.

John Bielenberg has once again designed settings that are equally handsome and functional. The stage alternately represents the library of the Dowd mansion and the reception area at Chumley’s Rest. In the blackouts between scenes, Latricia Saucier’s stage crew, assisted by cast members, deftly brings on, takes off and shifts set pieces to transform one location into the other.

Jennifer Oakes has admirably dressed the players so they are suggestive of, but not specific to, a different time. The ladies’ hats, mostly resembling exotic birds after a strenuous yoga session, are credited to Lillian Starrett. Philbrick has overseen hair and makeup.

Some theatergoers may feel the play moves too leisurely, but the pace may be a function of the subject matter. Offstage, alcohol plays a major role. Elwood, a charter member of the leisure class, is said to drink all day and every day. For decorum’s sake he can’t be portrayed as a stumbling drunk, but he is certainly not in any hurry to do anything. Part of the mystique of sophisticated drinking, which had its heyday with the de rigueur cocktail parties of the 1950s, was that true sophisticates could hold their liquor. They might hallucinate, but they could keep up a conversation, albeit slowly.

One apparent moral of this story — let’s have a drink! — predates by a long shot our own Age of Recovery, when there must be something wrong with you if there isn’t something wrong with you. Still, even the most stolid 12-stepper will have a chuckle at the self-righteous shenanigans that Harvey inspires.

Trivia buffs will appreciate that the landmark Chumley’s restaurant in Greenwich Village was opened in 1926 by socialist Leland Stanford Chumley as a speakeasy. It later became a watering hole for, among others, Cather, cummings, Dreiser, Faulkner, Lardner, Millay, O’Neill, Dos Passos and Steinbeck.

“Harvey” continues for one more long weekend at the Maskers Waterfront Theater, 43 Front St.  Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., May 6 through 9. Tickets are $15, $10 for teens, and are available at Yo Mamma’s Home on Main Street in Belfast; at the theater box office one hour before show time; and by calling 338-9668.

Belfast resident William Nelson does not anticipate that a MacArthur Fellowship will interfere with his periodic reviews of local theater.