Tom Strini
Chamber Theatre’s “Driving Miss Daisy”

A modest play, done well

By - Oct 16th, 2011 11:00 am
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Jonathan West, Ruth Schudson and Michael A. Torrey in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Mark Frohna photo for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988, and the 1989 movie version won four Academy Awards. But Saturday, as I watched the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre staging of this tale of the grumpy Jewish widow and her saintly African-American chauffeur, I got a Hallmark Channel vibe.

Nothing at all is wrong with the production, directed by C. Michael Wright; it earns its laughs and tears. Scenic designer Steve Barnes and lighting designer Noele Stollmack deftly conspired to make the many transitions from living room to road to office swift and convincing. Jonathan West, as Daisy’s loving but often exasperated son, stumbled out of the gate too big and loud for this gentle staging. But he found the right level in his next scene and was fine after that.

Ruth Schudson and Michael A. Torrey struck just the right tone and scale throughout. They resisted the obvious temptation to play broadly and they kept the action and speech on a real human scale. I especially admired their patience; they play older characters to begin with, and those characters age. Schudson and Torrey take their time talking, sitting down, standing up, and thinking before they speak. Their timing and confidence were such that the gaps never felt like vacuums; on the contrary, they let the play breathe.

The action plays out in Atlanta, in many vignettes spaced between 1948 and 1973. All three characters tacetly accept their racial and ethnic circumstances without endorsing them. Boolie, the son, a successful businessman, feels the faint buzz of anti-Semitism just out of earshot; racism rings louder in Hoke Coleburn’s ears, but his response is to duck out of the way. Daisy advances from “they all steal, you know” to becoming a supporter of Martin Luther King. But not a loud one. This was not the generation to confront the status quo. The Civil Rights movement is a battle heard from afar.

All three characters, even the annoying old lady, are kind at heart and learn from one another. They refuse to take racial or religious offense, as they sense good intentions in one another. Uhry’s message: If we cut each other some slack, we’ll all get somewhere. Hoke lives by it and changes three lives, including his own, for the better. That’s lovely. But Driving Miss Daisy, with all its honors, is too small in its ambitions and too predictable in both its sentiments and its relationships to be a more than a nice, earnest greeting card of a play.

Driving Miss Daisy runs in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center through Oct. 30. Call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800, for tickets, or visit the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre website.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Theater

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