Bittersweet "Driving Miss Daisy" at Catonsville
The Pulitzer Prize-winning (and later, Oscar-winning) play, Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry is the perfect fit for a small community theatre. It requires little scenery, simple lighting, and a few costumes. It also requires, no, demands excellent actors. The production of Daisy, which opened last weekend at the Catonsville Theatre Company's Barn Theatre space, has all of that and more, creating a funny, touching and ultimately bittersweet evening of theatre.
Clocking in at a mere 2 hours, including an intermission, the evening whizzes by, as the play chronicles the lives of Miss Daisy, her chauffer, Hoke and her son Boolie. The play, told in a series of vignettes, shows us all three characters as they grow over the last 25 years of Miss Daisy's life, which happen to parallel the tidal waves of change in the American South from the 1950's through the 1970's, including desegregation and the rise and fall of Martin Luther King, Jr. Miss Daisy and her son are Jewish, her chauffer, black. Racial tensions underline and inform the entire story – Miss Daisy adamantly denies being a racist, though she counts her silver and her pantry stock regularly and allows her staff to only eat in the kitchen, and at the same time, she is nearly oblivious to the prejudice that she, as a Jew, faces. Nowhere is this more clear than when she finds out her synagogue was bombed; she cannot fathom why it would happen, let alone believe it. And yet, Miss Daisy is, in many ways, what she says: her chauffer is allowed to negotiate his own pay, and allowed to buy the cars he drives as she gets new ones. Ultimately, a tenuous relationship between boss and chauffer grows into a loving friendship; it comes to a poignant conclusion, as 97 year old Daisy admits to 85 year old Hoke, that he is, in fact, her best friend. How the two come to this conclusion is a journey full of laughs, history and meaning; it is definitely a journey worth taking.
Directed by Joey Hellman, the casting is flawless. Less successful, though, is the pacing of Hellman's direction, which is hampered by overlong scene changes. Considering there are maybe a dozen props and only a few chairs and tables, there really is no excuse for the delays in the play. Mr. Hellman might find cross fading the lights to allow a scene and a scene change to happen simultaneously will take minutes off the running time, which will allow the play to flow more evenly.
Once the scenes themselves get started, though, his direction is first-rate. Each actual scene is paced well and is staged interestingly, with a chair representing a car seat and a tomb stone, or a table representing the driver's seat, and nearly all of the scenes requiring the actors to pantomime their actions and use minimal props. All of this serves the play well – it allows there to be a grand sweep of time and history, and by being so minimalist, it causes the actors, not their surroundings to be the entire focus of the play.
Hellman could not have asked for three better local actors for a cast – each is a gem! Steve Lichtenstein as Boolie treads that fine line between whiny mama's boy and man of the family. His frustration with his difficult mother is tempered nicely by a carefully doled out caring. The look of love and sadness, but not regret, on Mr. Lichtenstein's face in the final scenes adds a nice layer to the happy-sad time when child realizes parent is slipping slowly away. He also possesses terrific comic-timing and cadence in his speeches. A lesser actor could easily make this a one or two note performance, but Lichtenstein gives a layered, detailed performance.
Archie Williams, Jr's Hoke is a humble man with a backbone of steel. It is interesting to watch him work the system which is resolutely set up against him. His honesty and dignity intact throughout, Hoke earns respect while remembering his place. Williams is mesmerizing in the role, first as he matches wits with a stubborn Miss Daisy, and later as you watch him age. His voice booms with authority and an understanding of a proud personal history, and falters only when he can't get the system to accommodate him. There surely was not a dry eye in the house (including this critic), when he strongly and delicately calms a frantic, demented Miss Daisy, and then when he visits her in the home and feeds her Thanksgiving pie.
Miss Daisy, notably played by Jessica Tandy in the movies and Dana Ivey on stage, here is played with originality by Kathryn E. Smith. She has made the role her own – she is equal parts a strong-minded individual, spiteful nag, and underneath it all, a loving friend. Nowhere is this complexity of character more winningly portrayed all at once than when Miss Daisy, tending to her husband's grave, teaches Hoke how to read in order to complete a simple task. How she does so, with equal parts pushiness and compassion, shows her respect for the man. And watching Ms. Smith, as she ages her character – such details as her style of walking to a steady decrease in her ability to use her hands – is both awesome to see and utterly heartbreaking. Is there anything worse than seeing an otherwise vibrant woman deteriorate?