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Driving Miss Daisy — Walnut Independence Studio on 3 at Walnut Street Theatre

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Seeing “Driving Miss Daisy” again after several years is like visiting an old friend. You know exactly what to expect yet have the confidence you will be delighted you stopped in to have more time together. 

     The Walnut production of Alfred Uhry’s sturdy play, directed by Bernard Havard and appear in the tiny Independence Studio on 3, reinforces that confidence. Wendy Scharfman as the aged and aging Daisy Werthan, and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., as the chauffeur Daisy’s son hires to curtail her erratic driving, create a warm atmosphere as the understanding, trust, and affection between them builds. Their relationship seems especially close in the Walnut studio’s intimate 80-seat space, where a neatly placed track in the stage floor allows all action to be played as near the audience as possible. This is a nicely judged, affecting production that benefits not only from its leads and director but from the excellent supporting performance of Bill Van Horn, a son who is amused but not daunted by his domineering mother. Van Horn made the son, Boolie, more integral to the overall play than most actors I’ve seen in the part. 

      Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. can always be relied upon to endow his characters with accessible human qualities that make his portrayals immediate and real. As Hoke, he has the humor towards Miss Daisy that Van Horn shows as Boolie but also an individual way of expressing Hoke’s dignity and self-esteem. Hobbs make it clear from the production’s outset that Hoke will stand his ground with Miss Daisy when a boundary that challenges his integrity or intelligence is crossed. Hobbs is a master at playing integrity. Even when he plays less than noble characters, you see the sincerity he gives to the people he represents on a stage. Hobbs’s skill makes Hoke’s transition from household employee, and from Miss Daisy’s point of view, a nuisance, to friend more subtle and more poignant.  

      Wendy Scharfman, who helped to brighten the Walnut’s dodgy “Ideal Husband” last season, is just as clever in the way she measures out Miss Daisy’s capitulation to Hoke’s competence, charm, and friendship. Scharfman is game to play the scenes in which Daisy is merely temperamental and flinty, but you can see how she relishes the sequences in which Daisy shows more range. Scharfman’s ability to show the various thoughts and moods Miss Daisy can have at once, as she calculates what is proper and right from a conventional or cosmetic point of view, gives texture to Havard’s production and makes familiar scenes seem new. 

       “Driving Miss Daisy” is a series of vignettes that span 25 years, from the nascent days of civil rights in 1948 to the more outwardly changing times of 1973. Some of the segments are stronger than others, but the effect of “Driving Miss Daisy” always proves to be greater than the sum of its parts.  

       In the Walnut production, the show builds steadily from the scene in which Boolie informs Miss Daisy no one will insure her after her latest accident and she has to stop driving to the segment where Hoke, nearing 80, visits Miss Daisy at the nursing home where she, in her late 90s, lives, diminished in ways but sharp as ever in others. 

      The build is what matters. Uhry’s scenes are well-written and shrewdly crafted, but I have seen them play flat and have no cumulative effect in productions that play the words but not the dramatic progression of the playwright’s script. 

      The Walnut productions takes everything into account, even to the point of foreshadowing events or reminding the audience of them by the maps, photos, and newspapers that decorate the back and left side of the “Miss Daisy” set. TheWerthan home is represented  by a small window, curtained with embellished sheers, while the rest of the set shows the route from Atlanta to Mobile, a picture of Martin Luther King, the logo for the Piggly Wiggly, and a headline about the bombing by white supremacists of an Atlanta synagogue. 

      Southern propriety and Miss Daisy’s strictness inform the production. Miss Daisy is accustomed to having black workers in her house. The unseen cook and housekeeper, Idella, is an anchor for both Daisy and Hoke. It is rare that Daisy would break the line between help and employers to encourage friendship with anyone that serves her except Idella. It isn’t that Miss Daisy is racist, although she has a few mild moments when she regards Hoke more as a black man than as a human in her midst. It’s that she’s had a careful upbringing and retains a sense of place and alleged appropriateness that means a lot to her and which she upholds, at times to an extreme. 

      Daisy is wary of what people might think. Having grown up in a modest home, she is concerned that having a chauffeur will give people the idea she is putting on airs. Although  not devout in her religion — She makes a point of saying she goes to a Reform temple. — she is aware of her Jewish identity. She attends services every Saturday and eschews Christmas and her Jewish daughter-in-law’s ostentatious celebration of it, but she rides in a car to those services and eat pork chops and other food that is not kosher. She wants thing to be just so and gets upset to the point of agitation when all is not as orderly as she’d like or when someone has a different method of doing things. 

      Because of the rigidity Daisy has practiced most of her life, including during her career as an elementary school teacher, it is a special moment when you see Miss Daisy bend or when she takes it upon herself to do an unrequested kind act. It’s not that you think of Miss Daisy as mean or stingy. It’s that she is not easily forthcoming or giving. She is proud of her own independence, and that she worked in the schools even though her husband made a living that could have precluded her working at all, and she looks to foster her self-sufficiency in others. 

      Small touches make a big difference because it is in the little gestures and tiny generosities that Daisy demonstrates her sensitivity to others and her ability to observe and act on what she sees. 

      Hoke also enjoys his independence. While he is more open in expressing care about other people and more likely to act more directly in response to what he sees, he learns how to accept Miss Daisy’s pace and her way of doing things. That way the same objective is accomplished but more peacefully. 

       The more delicate the dance, the more subtly the relationships in “Driving Miss Daisy” unfold, the stronger and more moving a production is. 

       Alfred Uhry did a fine job in providing a framework and words that tell Daisy and Hoke’s stories. The meticulous structure of his play, and the romance of sorts between Daisy and Hoke go for naught if a director does not provide texture and intensity to go beyond the road map Uhry created. 

     Using music and lighting, in addition to eliciting fine performances from his cast, Bernard Havard evokes the sweetness behind the vinegar in Uhry’s script. Scharfman, Hobbs, and Van Horn always act as if they are made of flesh and blood and not on stage to represent types. 

      On more than one occasion, including the first time I saw “Driving Miss Daisy,” I thought the show was a modest piece that didn’t quite gel, didn’t coalesce entirely, until the end. I continue to use the term, “Driving Miss Daisy” effect, to refer to plays or productions that keep you interested but don’t engross or move you until the final scene. 

     Havard’s production at the Walnut has the virtue of engaging your interest from the first moment you see Van Horn’s Boolie on the telephone calling his mother. Havard and his cast make each scene in “Miss Daisy” a link to the next, so you feel as if you’re watching something evolve instead of separate and separated snippets that add up to a story. 

      “Driving Miss Daisy” is a good, solid show being given a good, solid production. In addition to Havard, Scharfman, Hobbs, and Van Horn, kudos go to Andrew Thompson for his flexible, informative set that always made it clear the back walls were not part of Daisy’s house, to Cory Neale for apt use of sound, and to Julia Poiesz for the suits she chose for Hoke and Boolie. Daisy was also dressed well, but I would have liked the aging belle to have at least one alternative outfit to the salmon/pink print dress Scharfman wore in most scenes. 

     After its run at the Walnut, this production will tour theaters and colleges on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. 

     “Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Sunday, February 2 at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3, on the third floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday though Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org

 

 

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