Stage reviews: 'Driving Miss Daisy' still resonates; 'Seven Guitars' mostly in tune


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'Driving Miss Daisy'

Say "Driving Miss Daisy," and the mind can't help but conjure Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman from the 1989 Oscar-winning best picture by Albert Uhry, who also won that year for adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh revisits the story of an elderly Southern Jewish woman and her 25-year bond with her African-American chauffeur in Rodef Shalom Congregation's Levy Hall, an intimate and apt setting.

In a scene midway through the play, the title character is told by her driver, Hoke Colburn, that her synagogue has been bombed. "Who would do that? It's a mistake," she says, determining that the intended target must have been a conservative temple. Her congregation is reform -- as is Rodef Shalom. When Hoke tries to explain the "who would do that" by relating that he had witnessed a lynching years earlier, Miss Daisy shuts down. This woman who has lived through both World Wars can't handle the idea that Jews and blacks might be hated equally by any group.

As she spends time with Hoke and the civil rights movement gains traction, Miss Daisy's attitude evolves, even as her body and mind begin to fail.

Cary Anne Spear, who has graced many local stages, is too youthful to be fully embraced as a widow aging from 72 to her 90s, although we feel the pain as her step slows and her back curves during the course of the play. She draws us into Miss Daisy's frustration with the ravages of time, and her delivery as a crusty former school teacher and infuriating backseat driver is spot on.

When we meet Daisy Werthan, she has just had a car accident yet refuses her son Boolie's offer of a "colored" driver. Boolie ignores her protests and hires chatty charmer Hoke, and we are treated to a bravura performance by Kevin Brown, a local actor seen recently in the August Wilson Center Theater Ensemble's "Gem of the Ocean."

Hoke wears down Miss Daisy's resolve and deftly parries her every resistance.

As Boolie, Todd Betker rounds director Marci Woodruff's engaging cast. Boolie recognizes that Hoke has become essential to his mother and pays him generously while putting up with Miss Daisy's complaints. "You're a doodle, Mama," Boolie is fond of saying.

Characters enter and exit scenes to time specific-songs and through various points in a black-curtain backdrop that is distracting but functional. The simple set offers a partial office and living room on either side of raised benches that represent the cars that carry Miss Daisy and Hoke as near as the Piggly Wiggly and as far as a visit to Mobile, Ala.

From her backseat perch, Miss Daisy tries to be Hoke's GPS in all things, but it's Hoke who emerges as her gentle guide through later life. As they reach the poignant end to their quarter century together, we are glad to have been along for the ride.

"Driving Miss Daisy" is at Rodef Shalom's Levy Hall, 4905 Fifth Ave., 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 ($17 for 65 and older) at 1-888-718-4253 or showclix.com.

-- Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

'Seven Guitars'

Among the 10 plays of August Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle, "Seven Guitars" may be the most personal. Although the date is 1948, the setting is the Hill District backyard at 1727 Bedford, where Wilson (1945-2005) spent his first 13 years, and the play is filled with the texture of the life he observed there.

Even so, "Seven Guitars" is fiction. It's also Wilson's only mystery, starting just after a funeral, leaping back a week, then proceeding to reveal who killed Floyd Barton and why.

Along the way in the current Point Park Conservatory production, we discover the real subject, the seven intertwined lives, each with its different song. Floyd and his dreams of music stardom may be central, but not by much. There's also cryptic prophet Hedley and his confused vision of the black man triumphant; Vera, Louise and Canewell, looking for love; Red, the loyal friend; and young Ruby with her "little fast behind" (as her aunt says), carrying a secret and a plan.

Ultimately, "Seven Guitars" has no one lesson to teach. As always in Wilson, there's plenty of comedy, but for all its pleasure and comforting music, the pain endures.

Indeed, the play is neither tragedy, comedy nor melodrama. Chicago serves these Pittsburghers as Moscow does Chekhov's three sisters, as a dream of escape and achievement, never to be realized.

More than anything, "Seven Guitars" depends on its vernacular poetry, laced with the stuff of everyday life -- brand names, sports stars, childhood rhymes and snippets of music, sung by the seven but also wrapping scenes in ambient music.

Visiting director Jade King Carroll has emphasized this speech, sometimes to the extent that the student actors stand awkwardly still. But they clearly understand the language, which is the main thing.

There is of course (as in any college show) a disjunction between young actors and their characters of middling years, but the sense of character comes through in any case. I am especially taken by Trumaine Verret-Fleming's insistent charisma as Floyd, MichaelAngelo Turner's irony and energy as Canewell and Alexis Cash's refusal to play to a stereotype as sexy Ruby. But I could praise the other four, as well.

The only drawback is that in striving for a Haitian dialect as Hedley, Saladin White II is often unintelligible -- and the character is a strange, would-be prophet whom we want to understand better.

Rich Preffer's set seems lifted right out of a Hill backyard, and it is well matched by professional-quality costumes, lights and sound.

"Seven Guitars" demonstrates the great truth of all Wilson's plays, that everyone is the star of his or her own life story, and all those stories have interest when told with such a mix of poetry, laughter and tears.

Note: Early in their rehearsals, I spent an afternoon with the cast, giving them a tour of August Wilson's Hill; I'd do the same for any local production of his plays.

"Seven Guitars" is at Point Park Conservatory, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland, through Sunday, then Nov. 29--Dec. 2; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. It is in the 75-seat studio theater and is said to be sold out, but there is a line at each show for turn-backs. On the night reviewed there were 10 empty seats.

-- Christopher Rawson, PG senior theater critic

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