Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Flo Hayle.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Lora Lee Ecobelli, Paul Carter; photo: John Sowle
"Miss Daisy, you are one lucky old lady, you know?"
Tony Pallone, Lora Lee Ecobelli; photo: John Sowle
While it is not unusual to have a touching and moving production of Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winning play and, eventually, Oscar winning film, it is a bit risky to present one where the title character is rather nice and charming almost from the beginning. Flo Hayle's production at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY rarely shows us the cantankerous old lady who crashes her car and loses her license. There are moments, you cannot avoid them, where she shows her true colors but this time around Hayle has given the old woman an unavoidable charm that clouds us with the illusion that she is actually nice from the get-go, a lady to be pitied and not avoided. And though he cannot admit it, her son Boolie Werthan, in this production, is always charmed by her even when she attacks his wife's credibility as a human being.
It is the hiring of a driver for her, Hoke Coleburn, that makes the difference. Avoiding his help with her southern conceit, she is revealed all too soon to be putty in his hands. At a certain age, it seems, romance comes wraped in stranger's packages and her non-Christmas-gift to him should sting somewhat, but instead it becomes a non-entity in his possession as she stresses both its usefulness and her history with it. We understand from the expression on his face that the gift isn't as important as the gesture. Romance, an impossible one for many reasons, is unleashed and runs rampant through the balance of the 81 minute one-act play.
Miss Daisy Werthan is played with gusto and verve by Lora Lee Ecobelli, an actress known throughout the region. Her driving-challenged grandmother, Daisy, is physically frail and yet sturdy, verbally acute and yet sweet, visually aware and yet blind to the realities that are surfacing in her life. She sees her son as an intruder without whom she cannot live and when she decides, finally, to treat him with indisputable sweetness it is a moment, with gesture, that is memorable and delicious. Ecobelli makes each of her lines feel honest, natural and real. It is as though we are watching her through a crack in the wall, seeing her character exactly as she is with no artifice. Considering the softness that the director has brought to the role there is still the controlled acidity in her character that cannot be overlooked. Only 65 or so at the beginning of the play Miss Daisy ages to just about 92 before the play ends and this transition is nicely handled by Ecobelli.
Paul Carter, Lora Lee Ecobelli, Tony Pallone; photo: John Sowle
Tony Pallone delivers nicely as Boolie. He takes turns with Ecobelli playing the poker hand of control. Respectful always, he can sometimes smoothly maneuver her into situations that he creates for her, but when he loses, and this is mostly with references she makes to his wife and their lifestyle, we can still see the legacy of charm that she emits. Pallone never angers in the role, even when his hired chauffeur demands and negotiates a raise. Instead, directed to play this moment with his back to the audience, he takes into consideration the considerable value Hoke has brought into the testy existence he shares with his mother and he acquiesces. Even without seeing his face we can see his physical reaction (and hear it in his voice) to a moment that could be seen as "uppity" and lets it lie there without racial considerations taking over. This is very nice work, indeed.
Paul Carter as Hoke holds the play together. He is a looming presence, taller, broader and warmer without excess, for the other two. The Werthans, mother and son, can build a wall if they choose, but Hoke won't have it. Instead he keeps the lines of communication open at all times. How Carter does this so sweetly is a mystery, but he pulls off the honesty and understanding of an accomplished therapist with a certain modesty and makes it work. Hoke breaks down fences, walls even, without leaving rubble behind. Carter eases through the barriers as Hoke, and makes it all seem so simple, so honest and real.
John Sowle's sets and lights work well through their simplicity. Michelle Rogers costumes give us the period of the play and its movement forward in time. Carmen Borgia does well with the sound cues. Flo Hayle, the director, sets the course and steers her players through the obstacles the script would like to set up for this trio of characters. Her unwavering gentless gives the play a feeling of length without losing its tempo and strength. She keeps her actors focused on the love among the three, sometimes not so clear, but always saving each episode. I've seen other productions that achieved the same end through a different emotional route and this one is unique for me. This one is driven, hopefully, in the right hand lane where slower drivers should be. Hayle never gets into the easy coasting lane or the high-speed passing lane. She maintains the speed of the script and does it well.
One of those plays that can't be seen too often, Driving Miss Daisy is a welcome autumn entry and, like the falling leaves, is a gentle reminder of why we love local beauty, theater and love family with a similar sense of what's right in our lives.
Driving Miss Daisy plays at Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through October 21. For tickets and information call the box office at 800-838-3006 or go to http://driving.brownpapertickets.com.