REVIEW BY NEAL ZOREN
For Digital First Media
Carla Belver, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Tony Braithwaite will be opening many eyes through March 26 with a production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” that takes nothing for granted and makes the play seem new, as fresh, funny, vibrant, and poignant as if it was being done for the first time.
Which, as we all know, is not the case. “Driving Miss Daisy” has accomplished something few plays of the last 30 years have managed. It has become a part of the general public consciousness, a contemporary chestnut everyone thinks he or she knows, and knows well.
Hence the grand surprise when Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite, directed by James J. Christy, break “Driving Miss Daisy” from its ordinary, stereotypical shell by and render it meatier, funnier, and sweeter by concentrating on basic elements of detailed, full-scale characterization and arch, expressive, yet natural line readings. Christy’s cast mines all of Uhry’s humor, and all of his pathos, while letting the play evolve in a way that reflects the marked growth and change happening to the characters, and in the world, between 1948 and 1973. Christy and company resist the habit of putting “Driving Miss Daisy” on automatic pilot and letting the reliability of Uhry’s piece do all of the heavy lifting.
That’s what happens to chestnuts. They become so welcome on their own accord, productions do the minimum and let the audience’s love for the piece suffice. Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite do something different. They enhance and illuminate Uhry’s sturdy material and remind people why “Daisy” earned praise and popularity in the first place.
People like basking in the familiar, and Christy’s uniformly sterling company retains that comfort zone while transcending “Daisy’s” straightforward presentation and obvious intent. Each member of the cast exudes individual personality and humanity that illuminates the script and gives purpose and intensity to Uhry’s similarly toned vignettes about a crotchety, septuagenarian lady of the white South and the black dayworker her worried son hires to be her chauffeur.
Belver, Wilson, and Braithwaite flowingly play every moment and every line of Uhry’s script with natural aplomb. You see a story of mutual respect, understanding, and love emerge between Belver’s Miss Daisy and Wilson’s chauffeur, Hoke, as characters live their lives and respond to each other. Dimensional people, not types, drive the play more than any one episode, and that makes “Miss Daisy” richer, funnier, more engaging, and more effective than usual. In Christy’s staging, you see incidents and events through the eyes and behavior of the people involved. Outside situations about bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and emerging civil rights register more movingly because the actors make us so keenly aware of how they affect their characters, as opposed to if the characters were hearing about and reacting to history from a distance. Braithwaite is particularly enlightening when Boolie explains why business concerns preludes him joining his mother to hear Martin Luther King speak.
From the time Carla Belver barks “No!” to her son when he suggests she hire someone to drive her, you know you won’t be seeing a typical Miss Daisy. With one word, Belver paints an indelible picture and binds you to her as a character. She doesn’t show you Miss Daisy as a rich, spoiled widow lording over a manor. She seems like an organized middle class woman, with ample money and more attitude, who likes things a certain way and can’t cope with alternative methods or ideas. This is not a stand-alone character, She is the mother and matriarch with which many of us have to deal. Belver’s Daisy will be an individual. Her eyes, especially when she talks about daughter-in-law, will say as much as her dialogue. Tony Braithwaite matches her with deadpan, sardonic readings that define Boolie while playing into Braithwaite’s established strengths as a line reader. In general, Braithwaite, a veteran of many productions, seems to mature as an actor in each new show he’s in.
His Boolie is infused with love and depth being the portrait of the occupied businessman. Brian Anthony Wilson portrays Hoke as large-spirited, happy, gregarious, a man who likes a good joke and can roll with punches, but who will stand his ground when pressed. There’s dignity in Wilson’s Hoke, even as he conveys the average man just trying to make a living. Wilson makes Hoke noble because of how he plays the character’s traits. Wilson is as careful to make Hoke “everyday” as Belver is to keep Miss Daisy from being born to an elite breed. Belver makes a comic symphony out of protesting Miss Daisy isn’t rich.
This is an astute cast that views their characters as unexceptionable members of a community. They do what all people do. They manage with incidents as they occur and grow with time. It’s the individuality within each character, and their pronounced authenticity, that makes it so rewarding and touching when you see Hoke and Miss Daisy’s last scenes.