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Driving Miss Daisy — Act II Playhouse

miss daisy -- interior 2From the second Carla Belver bellows her first emphatic “No” in Act II’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” you know you’re going to see a special performance.

As the first scene between Belver and Tony Braithwaite unfolds, you know you’re going to see a special production. The chemistry between him and Belver is immediate and destined to cause sparks that are both funny and intense. The good news is this effect ignites every time Belver and Braithwaite are together in this “Miss Daisy.” Brian Anthony Wilson’s work as Hoke, the man Braithwaite’s Boolie hires to be his mother’s chauffeur, adds to and reinforces that impression. This is simply a magnificent, eye-opening production of a play we all think we know but has facets, emotions, and laughs I’ve never seen any other cast mine so adroitly or completely. Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite do the unpredictably impossible. They make “Driving Miss Daisy” so fresh and flowing, it seems new.

James J, Christy has directed a three-hander that exceeds the sum of its parts thanks to the consistency and brilliance of its players and their ability to radiate warmth, personality, and humor. Act II’s “Driving Miss Daisy” illuminates Alfred Uhry’s script by attending meticulously to every nuance of it. Each vignette of Miss Daisy and Hoke adjusting to one another combines humanity, entertainment, and poignancy. And for once, each vignette, including those involving Boolie, counts as a satisfying one-act play of its own that contributes to a production of individual and collective triumphs.

Comedy, pathos, and well-observed knowledge of human behavior co-exist simultaneously and amicably on the Act II stage to create an atmosphere that is at once authentic and theatrical. Humor, though abundant and accentuated by the cast’s shrewd line readings and facial expressions, never overshadows Uhry’s larger point, that for big matters to change in the world, individuals have to meet, know each other, and realize how genuine similarities in people supersede alleged differences among them. Serious sequences play better because Act II audiences can laugh while recognizing how crucial it is that Miss Daisy and Hoke get past issues of race, wealth, privacy, and independence that reflect a segregated society in which generalities prevail over the traits, good and bad, of individuals. The easy juxtaposition of the comic and thought-provoking provides deft contrast while showing how much the funny and the serious remain part of the same thread and cloth. The comic tone that pervades Christy’s production enhances rather than undercuts the dramatic moments and has the marvelous effect of elevating “Driving Miss Daisy” from its usual status as an amusing episodic melodrama about a lovably cranky woman and her patient, resourceful helper to a smart, incisive, effective, and moving work of art that allows three wonderful actors to ply their craft while using their characters to depict a seminal time in American history.

Christy’s “Driving Miss Daisy” is decidedly conceived as a play for three equal characters. Braithwaite’s Boolie is not a bystander and go-between who helps buffer the initially tense scenes between his flinty mother and her pragmatic chauffeur. He contributes integrally to the general world Uhry portrays. The scene In which Boolie explains to his mother why he can’t accompany her to a Jewish organization’s dinner featuring Martin Luther King as a speaker is as affecting and telling as any passage in Uhry’s play in terms of presenting a realistic picture of civil rights circa 1962. Braithwaite and Belver make sure of this.

Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite make sure every scene plays entertainingly while having meaning in a way that moves Uhry’s play forward and gives it a fluid, evolving feel, as opposed to being a collection of episodes that are related but somehow separate and have a cumulative rather than ongoing impact. Christy’s production defies one of my own handy terms, “the ‘Driving Miss Daisy effect,” which, in my parlance, means a play that is watchable and diverting enough as it proceeds but has no emotional wallop until the lights go down on the final scene and you realize, for the first time, you’ve seen a work of consequence. Christy and company bring “Driving Miss Daisy” to vibrant, significant, and eloquent life from Carla Belver’s first word. They charm and enlighten all along. Each scene has heft, and each builds on its preceding sequence and informs the next, so this “Miss Daisy” acquires texture as it felicitously marks its characters’ lives from 1948 to 1973. Of the 20 or more productions of “Driving Miss Daisy” I’ve seen, Christy, Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite have providedthe best. The joy is they do it collectively and entertainingly, each taking a hand in this production’s success and grandeur.

Let’s go back to Belver’s first “No!”

“No” is a simple enough word, but it can be said and taken in so many ways. It can be a clear, definitive pronouncement that allows no challenge, or it can be the preamble to a negotiation or argument. It all depends on how it’s read, and possible readings are endless.

Considering this infinite variety, Carla Belver hits just the right note with her “No!” It more than gives an answer or states a case. It perfectly establishes a total character. Belver packs everything into it, and you have no doubt her ‘no’ means she’s not capitulating. Not in that first moment, not ever. We hear the resolution in her tone. We glean the anger and irritation she is feeling. And Belver shows as much as she is telling. Her Miss Daisy, chin down, looks at a point on the floor ahead of her when she issues her first negative. For her second, she turns her head slightly away from Braithwaite’s Boolie and utters it almost directly to the Act II house. Her face is set in a determined grimace that ends in a pout. Her eyes are those of a bull among to paw the ground in the arena and go in horn-first for a kill. Her posture is erect, her arms seeming stiff at her side, fists looking as if they’re about to pound of her thighs or the arm of her chair for emphasis. Her tone is immediately comic and authoritative. It rates a laugh while showing this Daisy Worthan is a woman of standards, set ways, and feisty temperament. Belver captures the comic-serious tenor of Christy’s entire production in one syllable, the same syllable with which she launches a production that never flags and gains steam and intensity as it proceeds.

The artistry keeps escalating. Belver, after her “no’s” to stage right, looks up at Boolie in defiance and makes declarations about what she’ll allow in her house, a place of order and regularity. Her variety in the first five minutes tells you the actress is going beyond Uhry’s script to show the candor, command, and crotchetiness of this woman who may have crashed her car, and who needs a driver if she doesn’t want to pay exorbitant insurance fees, but who will not put up with being told what’s good for her or what she can or cannot do by her son. Or anyone. She may be age 72, and little careless with a car of late, but she is of certifiably sound mind and a pillar of self-determination. More than usually, Belver’s Daisy is a force to be reckoned with, a force that can be stubborn and immovable. All of Daisy’s cantankerousness comes out, but it is tinged with logic and the right of any person who set some terms in her life. Especially when the one she contends with is her own son.

Belver’s performance is also delightfully and brightly comic, a tone Tony Braithwaite retains as Boolie responds to his mother.

Braithwaite is the embodiment of the world-weary son who tolerates his mother’s antics and gives her time to spew and vent but who is also a mature, amused man who knows how to get around the woman that raised him and who has inherited some of her verbal sass, even if he uses it more calmly and ironically.

Braithwaite’s Boolie is his mother’s son. He has her gift for language and sarcasm, tempered with the tact, firmness, and stoic demeanor of a man in business who has to mollify and satisfy clients while now and then taking their guff.

Braithwaite has forged a career on shrewd, deadpan responses and “I-can’t-believe-my-five-senses” leers and expressions. He is a master at such takes. They helped get him noticed and they’ve been a mainstay I his performances from “Biloxi Blues” at Hedgerow to his “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Rounding Third,” and “Hotel Suite” at Act II.

Braithwaite, like Boolie, is mature. He doesn’t try to be a boyish Boolie or the cute, darling son who gets away with murder by simpering or cheekiness.

No, Braithwaite’s Boolie is as much a force to be reckoned with as Belver’s Daisy. The actor uses his patented, successful style of sidelong glances and tart line readings, but he does so in complete character. You don’t see Tony Braithwaite plying his trade. You see Boolie Worthan dealing with his mother by standing up to her. His sardonic looks and responses are true to Braithwaite’s character and a sign Boolie has seen this act before and has to let his mother’s tirade subside before he steps in with some truth and logic about an overall situation.

Once again, an entire characterization is established in the way Braithwaite stands and listens to his mother go on about refusing to have a driver. There’s patience only slightly mitigated by anticipation as to when to jump in and say what must be said to do what must be done. There’s humor. Boolie enjoys his mother’s protests. Braithwaite treats them as a leitmotif of Boolie’s life. There’s gentle but determined purpose to both mother and son. Daisy may think she’s making headway, but Boolie will call the shot. He knows it and can wait for mother to finish objecting before he imposes his will. When has gotten past the latest kerfuffle or complaint. Braithwaite’s Boolie makes a sweet but ironic ritual of kissing his mother on the top of her head and saying, “You’re a doodle, Mama.”

Throughout Christy’s production, you notice and take stock of Boolie more than usual. Braithwaite shows how deftly Boolie uses humor, common sense, intuition, and knowledge of the world to solve problems that arise. Braithwaite’s talent for showing how well Boolie anticipates what people want from him enhances the scene in which Hoke comes to Boolie’s office to speak about taking another position while angling for a raise to stay with the Worthans. Braithwaite has a grin and a twinkle in his eye that informs us he knows exactly what Hoke is after, will listen for the pitch, and then do what he’s decided to from his first perception of Hoke’s aims.

Braithwaite’s is a good, solid performance that establishes Boolie as an equal member of the “Daisy” cast and shows an actor in command of his personal repertory and using it judiciously and effectively to give a character texture and magnitude. Braithwaite is one of those actors who can rely on his talent for entertaining but keeps getting stronger and deeper as his career goes on. His range keeps expanding, and “Driving Miss Daisy” is another in a series of breakthroughs he’s had in recent years.

Brian Anthony Wilson follows suit with his castmates. He makes the initial employment interview between Hoke and Boolie a delight. He also lets you know his character from the first word he utters.

Wilson does not make Hoke humble, naïve, or bashful about what he has to say, particularly when he speaks about why he prefers to work for Jewish people like the Worthans. His Hoke is gregarious and high spirited. He’s like the chatty barber or cab driver who can’t help being talkative and sociable. He greets Boolie with a laugh and shows a lot of personality while also conveying a keen understanding of life. His remarks about working for Jews (vs. Baptists) are funny because they key into clichés people spout about Jews (just as Miss Daisy spouts hackneyed saws about black people, and Boolie categorizes the people with whom he has to do business) and are more innocent that mean or ugly. You see Hoke’s openness  y the naïve confidence and natural conversational ability with which he utters them. He doesn’t regard his words as being prejudicial or outlandish but as a reflection of the world as he has experienced it. He has driven for a Jewish judge and a Baptist matron, and he had to leave the employ of the matron because he couldn’t stand her constant snobbery, condescension and gossip. The last straw was when she offered Hoke some of her late husband’s shirts, so old they were yellowed at the collar, for 25 cents apiece.

Wilson adds humor to “Miss Daisy” by accentuating Hoke’s innate humor. Wilson’s Hoke sees the irony in Miss Daisy’s obstinacy and finds much around him funny.

He, like Belver’s Daisy and Braithwaite’s Boolie, stresses Hoke’s candor. Hoke is quick to point out he is taking Boolie’s money for nothing if Miss Daisy won’t permit him to take her anywhere, and he will speak up when he thinks Miss Daisy is talking to him as if he was a child or letting their difference in race skew her judgment. Wilson’s Hoke asserts himself nicely in the scene in which he and Miss Daisy are riding to Alabama, and he has to interrupt the trip for personal reasons. He is humble, while maintaining magnitude, in the scene in which he admits to Miss Daisy he cannot read. (Belver, who had been firing salvos hilariously throughout her performance, has one of her best deliveries when Daisy tells Hoke, “I have taught some of the stupidest children G-d put on this green earth how to read, and I can teach you.”

Wilson’s Hoke is professional in his job but, when he lets loose, has a big personality that combines down-home naturalness with dignity and competence. Wilson is a vividly human Hoke, who will acknowledge faults, and sees them in others, while accepting life as it comes, striving for the best, and expressing good-naturedness and lots of tolerance. He is also direct, yet subtle, in affirming Hoke as a private man, who buys one of the Worthans’ cars from the dealer rather than discuss personal finances with Boolie, already “too much” in his “business.”

Christy and company do not take “Driving Miss Daisy” for granted. They don’t depend on the familiarity or popularity of Uhry’s work, one of the few theater pieces of the last 30 years to stay consistently current, to be accepted for its name’s sake. Belver, Braithwaite, and Wilson mine every bit of comedy and drama from the play. They perform it as if it’s being done for the first time. Consequently, all of Uhry’s ideas come through. This “Driving Miss Daisy” can be enjoyed for surface value or because it truly shows the melding of people who learn each other’s individual ways and habits have more to do with living and adapting to a real world than being Jewish or black.

Of course, prejudice from the outside world, particularly in Atlanta, where “Miss Daisy” is set, is critical to the play. Both Miss Daisy and Hoke betray prejudice that doesn’t amount to bigotry and racism on a large or dangerous scale but muddies the truth by allowing for stereotypes and generalities that cannot describe all, or even most,  people of any culture.

Daisy and Hoke have suffered because of prejudice towards Jews and blacks. Hoke reveals a childhood experience in which he saw a friend’s father lynched, and Miss Daisy is prevented from attending services on a day when Klansmen have bombed her synagogue. Uhry, without diminishing the poignancy of the bombing, even has Miss Daisy reveal a prejudice within Judaism by saying her temple is Reform and isn’t as observant as the Conservative congregation nearby (and therefore less likely for an anti-Semite to attack). All of the characters have their little quirks. Miss Daisy doesn’t like people to say she’s rich, even though she is, and talks about a tough childhood on Atlanta’s Forsyth Street when Boolie or Hoke refer to her money. Hoke is careful about his privacy, rarely mentioning the granddaughter of whom he is so proud to Miss Daisy or Boolie and refusing to talk to Boolie about his finances. Boolie is sensitive to Miss Daisy’s snipes at his wife. Florine, who will go to extremes to be popular at keep up with the Atlanta Joneses.

I was taken by the organic nature of this “Driving Miss Daisy.” It involved me as it moved forward in a narrative fashion that was so much better than the usual episodic approach.

Daniel Boylen’s set is simple, just a big wing chair towards stage right and some small pieces of furniture, but it evokes an entire house and shows Miss Daisy’s taste. Frankie Fehr’s costumes work, especially for Boolie who is seen in the widest variety of settings.

Act II’s is a “Driving Miss Daisy” that gives status to what has become a contemporary chestnut. It succeeds in showing three characters in complete dimension, while also allowing you to imagine the off-stage Miss McClatchey and Florine, Boolie’s pretentious wife, the mention of whose name gives Belver overt but subtle opportunities for reacting with a range of disapproving facial expressions and dismissive eye rolls. Matters about racism and anti-Semitism have more than usual impact because Christy keys into how hatred affects individuals we have come to love. This has the effect of making audiences attend and think more about incidents of bigotry and how widespread and dangerous they are in the wider world. Miss Daisy and Hoke become immediate representatives of a universe that too often demonstrates man’s inhumanity to man.

“Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Saturday, March 26, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $36 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org. Geade: A+

 

 

 

 

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