Driving Miss Daisy
Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through Dec. 14 at TPAC’s Polk Theater
Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble
Through Dec. 9 at the Darkhorse Theater
Theater can be a funny thing. You can have expectations shattered in the blink of an eye. A good case in point is Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s new production of Driving Miss Daisy. The movie version of Alfred Uhry’s popular meditation on age, friendship and cultural differences is a modern classic of sorts. Yet the story is so familiarlikewise our memory of Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman on celluloidthat it might seem less eventful when a local company mounts it. The Rep’s rendition, however, is lovingly staged by David Grapes and features three quality actors who satisfyingly put their personal stamp on their performances. There’s nothing innovative going on at the Polk Theater, reallybut polished, entertaining professional theater qualifies for a lot.
Karen Grassle takes on the lead role of Daisy Werthan, the 70-ish Georgia widow whose increasing automobile mishaps force her son, Boolie (Henry Haggard), to hire her a chauffeur. Enter Hoke Coleburn (Marcial Howard), a tall black gentleman about 10 years Daisy’s junior who is as “at sea” with his place in life as Miss Daisy is with hers. In two acts and 23 scenes, we watch them age through the years and grow together in unlikely but devoted companionship. There are humor and warmth throughout, as well as some more serious takes on American social change through the mid-20th century, primarily civil rights. Pretty simple stuff, really. But Uhry’s script is well crafted, the characters are appreciatively singular, and this production does it all justice.
Grassle, after a successful run years back on TV’s Little House on the Prairie, has been more recently plying her trade in regional theater. She’s got her chops. She’s by turns elegant and understated, she clearly delineates her character, and, generally speaking, she gracefully presents Daisy’s physical transition through the play’s span of years.
Howard, who previously played his role at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre, is her equal. He’s bigger than life, passionate and caring, and we smile and cheer him when he asserts himself in the midst of the well-to-do white-folk milieu in which he works.
The straw that stirs the drink in this production, though, is the ever reliable Henry Haggard. His cleanly etched characterization of Boolie, Miss Daisy’s loving and lovable businessman son, is simply marvelous to behold. Haggard is one of our town’s finest pros, and he proves it once again in this performance. His Georgia accent is right, and he captures all the proper nuances of irony, resignation and lightheartedness that his role demands.
A few quibbles: In the play’s opening moments, Grassle and Haggard look closer to wife and husband than mother and son. No doubt, Miss Daisy was a relatively young mom, but some tweaking of makeupone way or the othermight more clearly define the two characters’ familial relationship. In fact, Grassle could even work on appearing a little older throughout. Sure, Daisy was a spry old gal, but she makes it to 97 by evening’s end, and we could use a better sense of those creaking bones along the way. Here’s a case where more intense concentration on playing the age would pay off big-time. Finally, the important scene in which Daisy declares Hoke to be her “best friend” lacked power. A more emotional build is required.
Gary C. Hoff produces another first-class set for this concise three-character dramathough it’s hard not to notice that he seems to have reworked the set pieces from the Rep’s recent production of The Miracle Worker. No problem, thoughit’s functional and attractive. Jim L. Alford’s costumes are right on, as is Todd Bowden’s lighting. Sound designer Darin Karnes offers us some nice strains of dulcimer music that seem appropriate enough. More jarring is hearing Nat Cole’s version of “Silent Night” being played in the Jewish Werthan household. (But then, maybe Daisy’s just a fan of the “King.”)
Harder than it looks
The other major Nashville production that opened last weekend was Actors Bridge Ensemble’s American Buffalo. Few scripts could be more different than Driving Miss Daisy, though this play also has three characters and is written by an award-winning playwright, in this case the always fascinating David Mamet.
Three small-time chiselers hang about a resale shop, plotting the heist of some rare and valuable coins. Like many a Mamet vehicle, it isn’t so much about the action but about the re-action. More important than what these fellows do is how they interact with each other. Mamet’s clipped dialogue and famous pauses are here in abundance, in the play that first made him widely known in the mid-1970s as an important dramatic voice.
Actors Bridge artistic director Bill Feehely takes the lead as the intense Teach, a role originally played by Al Pacino onstage and by Dustin Hoffman in the movie version. Jeff Lewis is Don, the world-weary shop owner who has hatched the theft scheme. And Nashville newcomer P.A.T. Fitzgerald is Bob, a young sad sack of a guy who seems particularly burdened with his pathosand his dopey, alienated innocence.
Act 1 starts slowly and offers a relatively quiet and curious bit of character development. It does, however, efficiently set the stage for Act 2, where the plot advances haltingly but mostly provides a podium for Teach to vent his frustration on his confreres rather megalomaniacally and violently. Tensions mount and rise with definite momentum, and when Teach explodes physically, wreaking havoc on both Bob and the scenery, we are a captive audience. The taste for Mamet is an acquired one; here’s an example where his work, if only as a means to watch actors act, certainly holds our attention successfully to the conclusion.
On opening night, it looked like Feehely and Lewis were still struggling to get the timing down on their interplay. Anyone familiar with more widely known Mamet works such as Glengarry Glen Ross will recognize the modern master’s distinctive technique of staccato, repetitious dialogue. It sometimes seems silly when you hear it, but it takes a lot of work to get it right. This aspect of the production needs work.
Otherwise, while the performances are generally pretty good, one senses, given the eccentric nature of Mamet, that even more menace and/or intensity could be wrung from these portrayals. The worst thing you can do in a Mamet play is simply to stand around and talk at each otherespecially since that’s exactly what the author seems to give you to work with on a superficial level. Director Don Griffiths usually has everyone walking about efficiently enough. In addition, the drama’s arc is well realized by the time Feehely erupts in an indisputably entertaining fashion. Still, there are too many moments of what can only be called uncertainty onstage.
Despite its undeniably interesting pulse, this production either needs more rehearsal or possibly a stronger directorial hand to give it a chance to be the consistently edgy thing it purports to be.
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