Friday, October 16, 2015

ASF: "Driving Miss Daisy"

It can't get much better than this at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival: a time tested script by Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry, sensitive direction by John Manfredi without a hint of patronizing sentimentality, a design team at their best, and a stellar ensemble of actors, resulting in a provocative and emotionally wrenching iteration of the Pulitzer Prize winning Driving Miss Daisy. -- The standard has been set high as ASF begins its 30th Anniversary Season in Montgomery.

Staged in the Octagon Theatre to capitalize on its intimacy, Driving Miss Daisy succeeds in engaging its audiences from the start and never loosens its gently insistent grip for the 90-minute playing time covering twenty-five years that start during Truman's presidency and end sometime after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

The plot is so well known that there are no surprises in store, though Uhry's deceptively simple script does provide any number of insightful revelations about race relations in a reluctantly changing South, and resonate in 2015 as much as they did at its 1987 debut.

When a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish widow Daisy Wertham [Greta Lambert] wrecks yet another car in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood, her son Boolie [Brik Berkes] hires Hoke Colburn [James Bowen] a 60-year-old "colored man" as her chauffeur. Used to her independence, Daisy resents her son's intrusion in bringing a "stranger" into her household, and refuses to engage with Hoke whom she "mistrusts"; and while she claims to not be prejudiced, she still refers to Hoke as one of "them". -- But the cards are stacked against Daisy as Boolie tells Hoke that Daisy can't fire him because "you'll be working for me."

This unlikely relationship is tracked over the next couple of decades via episodes that demonstrate a gradual mutual respect so that in her old age, Daisy claims "You are my best friend."

The performances in Driving Miss Daisy are completely credible as the characters age twenty-five years, thereby enabling us to invest in their lives and both laugh and cry as they reveal themselves to us in everyday as well as extraordinary situations.

In Mr.Berkes' capable portrayal, Boolie is a caring son who knows well his mother's foibles and how to placate her more modest requests with an off-handed "You're a doodle, Mama", but can be firm in making her journey into old age as comfortable as possible, correcting her when appropriate. And his reticence in attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. event for fear of losing business and being socially ostracized is a difficult decision. -- He learns to trust Hoke sooner than his mother, and their negotiating Hoke's contract is a lesson in understanding.

Mr. Bowen's Hoke [arguably his best performance at ASF] is an instantly likable person who is practiced in negotiating a job, a raise in pay, and relationships with white people by maintaining a pleasant demeanor regardless of the years of inherited prejudice levied against him. Sly as a fox, Mr.Bowen exhibits Hoke's inherent kindness in being ever patient with Daisy's demands and biases while keeping his integrity intact when he refuses her last minute invitation to the MLK event. -- Theirs is a friendship that is powerful in its honesty.

In her thirty years gracing the ASF stage in Montgomery, Greta Lambert has rarely been as luminous as in her depiction of Daisy Wertham. Her exquisitely nuanced performance that shows Daisy's pride and steadfastness, her sense of humor and puzzlement at world affairs, her motherly instincts and her teacher's practicality, and her ability to remain hopeful as she expertly transitions into old age [without make-up enhancements, relying instead on her subtle vocal and physical adjustments], makes her Daisy a master class in acting. -- The relationships with her on-stage counterparts are crafted with such detail that she seems to effortlessly inhabit the role. -- She is able to carry audiences along her journey that enables them to identify with her as she experiences the power of friendship that transforms her.

The final scenes showing the impact of her dementia are handled gracefully; as Hoke patiently and with the utmost concern for his friend feeds her a piece of pie, there is hardly a dry eye in the house.