Driving Miss Daisy at the Jungle Theater

Wendy Lehr and James Craven in Driving Miss Daisy.  Photo by Michal Daniel.

Wendy Lehr and James Craven in Driving Miss Daisy. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Wendy Lehr is in this play!  James Craven!  Holy moley!

Why can’t live theater generate Twins-like, Vikings-esque excitement?  Certainly, seeing artists of the caliber of Lehr and Craven bring a play to life is at least as exciting as watching Joe Maurer go 0-for-4, or contemplating Adrian Peterson as he snares poorly thrown passes from Whatshisname, his hapless team endeavoring once again to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Why?  The older I get the less able I am to understand this.  Plays like Alfred Uhry‘s Driving Miss Daisy (at the Jungle Theater, though Dec 22) thrill.  Here is a unique op to witness the work of first rate actors, the like of which you won’t see anywhere – even if the play is a tad creaky and less than fully satisfying.  To heck with the injury-plagued Timberwolves; give me Miss Daisy any day.  Why, I’d rather—

All right, all right.  End of rant.

Lehr plays Daisy Werthan with a winning combination of fireplug feistiness and serene and arch grande dame charisma.  Imperiously, she permits her chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn, to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly store (gotta get those bargains).  Powerfully diminutive, Lehr’s slightly illogical combo of frenetic energy and languid Southern self-assurance makes her compulsively watchable.  She had me grinning constantly.  Here is an actor at the peak of her power.  Under Bain Boehlke‘s firm direction, Lehr’s performance is pitch-perfect.  Driving Miss Daisy is energized without being rushed or fakily pumped up.

(And, btw, we’ll get a delicious opportunity to see these two, Lehr and Boehlke, work together in the Jungle’s upcoming On Golden Pond.)

Also very good is Charles Fraser as Daisy’s ever-suffering son Boolie.  He plays his role with sweet, good-natured verve.  Boolie loves his mother and his gratitude to Hoke, who keeps her well-reigned in and well-cared for, is palpable.  Boolie hires Hoke to drive Miss Daisy, after warning him that she can he a handful.  Hoke either doesn’t believe him or (more likely) doesn’t care.  In any case he never looks back.  A genuine, albeit weird, love is born.

Hoke Coleburn is the star of Driving Miss Daisy.  James Craven gives Hoke a poise and a quiet dignity that grows and builds effectively.  The shriller Miss Daisy becomes, the more contained and focused Hoke becomes.  We truly feel the interdependence – and the love that these two hold for each other.

There’s a marvelous moment that defines this relationship – gorgeously directed.  Hoke, lost in the wilds of Alabama, goes off in search of a place to pee (a black man, he can’t use the facilities at the recently visited Standard Oil), leaving Daisy in the dark car, plaintively calling for him.  Perfection.

Driving Miss Daisy evokes a (happily, imo) bygone era when the Miss Daisies of the Old South tooled about in chauffeur-driven Caddies, unaware of (or perhaps in deliberate ignorance of) the racial and class superiority this signalled.  Hoke drives Miss Daisy from 1948 until 1973, a period of astonishing change, for the whole country and for the South especially.  But, watching this play, you wouldn’t really know this.  Daisy and Hoke live in a timeless world of their own.

The play often frustrates.  It’s 2013, and better playwrights (one thinks immediately of August Wilson) have handled the era more intelligently and more effectively.  But as a portrait of an odd and sweet love, one that builds and grows with quiet certitude, Driving Miss Daisy is unequaled.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.

 

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