Review by Lori Schneider
FORESTBURGH, NY (September 2, 2015) – Earth, Wind and Fire and Chicago may have been at Bethel Woods on Tuesday night, but opening night of Forestburgh Playhouse’s only drama this season saw Soul in Atlanta as three equally matched, powerful actors took the stage for just under an hour and a half and breathed sweet life into a poignant, Driving Miss Daisy.
The theatre magic onstage was “driven” by the brilliance of the actors, themselves in creating believable characters that lived and breathed and cared for and about each other. Interesting … Power is the word of the night, as I sit without power, typing on my laptop (thank goodness for batteries) in the midst of a multi-county-wide power outage, piecing together feelings into words about the moving performance I experienced this evening, and hoping my battery lasts!
Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy tells the tale of the relationship of an elderly, wealthy, white, Jewish, Southern woman and her African American Chauffer that spans the years 1948-1973. The play opened to critical acclaim Off-Broadway in 1987 starring Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman (earning Uhry the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), was adapted to an Oscar winning screen version in 1989, starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd and has seen recent Broadway revivals with the likes of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury. Through all its iterations, it retains a warmth and truth. The greats who have made the roles their own may be formidable shoes to fill, but Production Designer, Ron Nash’s cast is more than up to the task.
Loretta Swit is best known for her role as Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on television’s M*A*S*H, but there was not a trace of anyone but Miss Daisy Werthan as Swit took the stage and tore up the boards as the spirited, Southern septegenarian who ages over twenty years in the course of the one act play. The show opens in the late 1940s with a car crash that leaves Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie (none other than Forestburgh’s versatile Producer, himself, Franklin Trapp) no choice but to hire a driver for his aging mother, who is no longer safe to drive on her own. Miss Daisy does not want any strangers in her home, let alone driving her. She is intent on the fact that she comes from humble beginnings where her family knew the value of a penny – that she is not wealthy or “uppity” and doesn’t want to be “taken” shopping to the Piggly Wiggly or to Temple. Enter Hoke Coleburn, the soft spoken, yet equally determined, Lorenzo Scott. Hired by Boolie to drive his mother, Hoke is as strong willed as Miss Daisy and the two pit themselves against each other at the start. It takes the better part of a week of Hoke sitting around, not being allowed to do anything, before Miss Daisy finally accepts her first ride. “Only took six days – same time it took the Lord to make the world.” As the years melt into one another and time passes, the two develop a strong bond and the social commentary, complete with a bombing of the Temple and a UJA Dinner held to honor the Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provide the backdrop to the focused action of the play.
Traversing 25 years in the course of a one-act, hour and twenty minute show, actors are given little time to develop their characters. They need to hit the stage running in who they are and how they interact with one another – and Swit, Scott and Trapp do just that. It is the lovely relationships, the dynamic between mother and son, between unlikely friends and the tender moments between people that weave themselves into the heart of the audience. It would be an understatement to say the casting is outstanding. To do justice to this piece, it takes three actors who can each hold their own, yet play off of the others well – and that is certainly the case in this production. The three match each other lick for lick and it is the care with which Nash and the actors craft their characters that moves the action forward. Swit is equally comfortable and convincing with the range of emotions Miss Daisy displays – from feisty and fiercely independent to distraught and confused as she cries her dismay at not being able to find “her students’ homework.” Scott’s Hoke is a no-nonsense, warm and grounding presence onstage – an actor who is truly at home in the skin of the character he puts on. He softly counters each cantankerous outburst that Miss Daisy can throw at him. The bulk of the action of the show centers around these two and they are beautifully paired. A retired school teacher, Miss Daisy insists that it’s ridiculous when Hoke confides that he can’t read – and teaches him. But it’s through each other that they really learn what life is about and forge a lasting, true friendship. The power of the actors mesmerized – as, before the audience’s eyes, they aged – beautifully, effortlessly through impeccable body language and vocal quality. Trapp’s Boolie is a concerned son and local businessman – completely assimilated into the “good ol’ boys” politics of Atlanta. While his mother goes to Temple each week, he and his wife (who we only hear about but never meet) celebrate Christmas, complete with tree, lights and nasal carols. He receives accolades from the local Chamber of Commerce while worrying what attending a dinner at which Dr. King will speak might do for his reputation and his business. Trapp brings a humanity to Boolie as his character also ages — sporting a paunch and slowing down a bit (I could have lived without the drastic, suddenly-whitened temples!)
Because the strength of this production lies within the interaction between the characters, the story could easily have been told on an all-but-bare stage — there were several homey spaces created — Daisy’s sitting room, Boolie’s office and home that evoked the period, but the set at times seemed crowded — or perhaps it was the way it was lit — with a large gazebo dominating the background throughout and used only toward the end of the show. Isolated pools of light may have served the action better, whether in the “driving” scenes or in the cemetery scene in which too much of the other stage areas was seen and at times, detracted. Costume Design by Genevieve V. Beller was simple, effective and understated and worked well for the characters, time and place. Sound Designer, Dave Sanford utilized a warm sound track to help progress the story, whether music, crickets or a hound barking in the distance. The scene changes were fluid and maintained a good pacing and feel as the years unfolded.
While Forestburgh’s impressive season thus far has consisted of snazzy feel-good musicals, don’t dismiss this true Georgia peach of a drama that will bring the season proper, to a close. With less stage time than its predecessors (the show only runs thru Sunday, September 6th), you will want to drive right over to 51 Forestburgh Road, Forestburgh, NY. Get your tickets now – call the Box Office at 845-794-1194 or go to www.fbplayhouse.org.