REVIEW: Jungle Theater’s “Driving Miss Daisy” puts two masterful performers — James Craven and Wendy Lehr — in the driver’s seat.
Treat yourself to the Jungle Theater’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” Do it in spite of the fact that Alfred Uhry’s 1987 script, made famous in the Oscar-winning 1989 movie starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, is a somewhat dated chestnut with a predictable story arc.
See “Daisy” to encounter actors — Wendy Lehr and James Craven — in the effulgence of their skill and beauty as artists of the stage.
There will be multiple occasions when you will wish you had two sets of eyes so that you could watch each actor’s expressive face at the same time.
Lehr, known for her long tenure at Children’s Theatre Company and for her comic chops, tamps down her inner clown and embraces the vinegary curmudgeon Daisy Werthan, a 72-year-old Jewish widow in Atlanta in 1948 who has just had a car accident.
“I am not prejudiced,” she insists to her son, Boolie (Charles Fraser), objecting to his decision to hire her a “colored” driver.
Indeed, her opposition stems more from innate thriftiness and a desire to retain her independence than from bigotry. While Daisy is solidly middle-class, she reminds us that “I grew up on Forsythe Street, and I learned the value of a dollar.”
When he first enters to interview for the driving job, Hoke Colburn (Craven) moves with studied elegance. He almost moonwalks into Boolie’s office, one hand cocked back with fingers curled, a gesture that seems both grave and slightly effeminate, the other hand lightly grasping the brim of a black hat.
How wonderful, given this dignified attitude, when Craven’s Hoke instantly woos Boolie with his candid charm. It’s a terrific scene subtly calibrated to show a man confident in his own personhood but also willing to play the game artfully if it may result in favorable employment.
Such moments proliferate as Hoke and Daisy get to know each other over a span of 25 years. Civil-rights news and a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. are background elements, but the telling moments between the two are expressed in smaller ways that make it easy for us to relate — an insult protested, an argument settled peaceably, a confidence shared, an important friendship eventually acknowledged.
The second half of the 80-minute play (no intermission) has several masterfully executed pas de deux, one on the sofa at Daisy’s home (she tells Hoke he’s her best friend and he devastatingly responds, “Yes’m”). A final one, at a nursing home where Daisy’s usual crabbing is nearly silenced by drugs or dementia, is a heartbreaker.
Bain Boehlke’s direction, like his set design, is note-perfect. Sure, he’s working with veteran actors, but his love of this kind of tart-and-sweet American play is evident throughout.
Boehlke is ably assisted by Amelia Cheever’s period costumes, Barry Browning’s lights and a sound design by Sean Healey that includes car doors slamming, engines turning over and the squeaky hinge of a screen door. It adds the timing and virtuosic detail of a radio play.
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