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Cordially yours: Markle and Marshall in Driving Miss Daisy.

Right of Way

By James Yeara

Driving Miss Daisy
By Alfred Uhry, directed by Regge Life
Capital Repertory Theatre, through April 19

The last image of Capital Repertory’s current production of Driving Miss Daisy says it all without words: The aged African-American chauffeur, Hoke, feeds the even-more-aged Jewish woman, Miss Daisy, pumpkin pie at a Thanksgiving dinner in the nursing home in which Daisy is spending her final days. A moment before, she had reached for the fork with shaking, frail hands. Now accepting Hoke’s help, Daisy opens her mouth, receives the forkful of pie, then smiles, looking up at him from her chair. She beams. Hoke looks down on her. The lights flare for a beat, and then there is darkness—and the audience explodes in applause.

This 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (the film version of which garnered a 1989 Academy Award for Best Picture) earns the applause with a production as tasty as fresh-from-the-oven pumpkin pie; there’s an honesty and a simplicity at work here that achieves that earthy sweetness. It isn’t flash. It isn’t sophisticated. It isn’t more than the sum of its ingredients, but it is good and wholesome and tops off an evening well.

Capital Rep’s fast-paced production (84 minutes with no intermission) finds the surprising humor in the three characters as Driving Miss Daisy depicts the 25-year relationship between 72-year-old Daisy Wertan (Lois Markle), her son Boolie (Jay Edwards), and the chauffeur he hires, 60-year-old Hoke Coleburn (Larry Marshall). Tracing the key moments in simple but clearly delineated images, director Regge Life keeps the focus on the characters and not on stagecraft. Driving Miss Daisy blossoms: You watch the play’s 24 scenes bloom, season to season, from 1948 to 1973, accompanied by floral images glowing from the windows of the French doors upstage center.

The play’s sounds and words also engage: From the opening sounds of Miss Daisy’s car grinding into the garage, through Boolie’s interview of Hoke and Hoke’s crafty, sly responses (“They say they [Jews] are stingy and they cheap, but they don’t say that around me”) to Hoke’s key question, “How you know how I see unless you look out through my eyes?,” Driving Miss Daisy has a sure ear for the rhythms of ordinary life and the humor that springs unbidden from it. There are no flashes of poetry, and few contrived situations that wring laughs. Rather, Driving Miss Daisy earns what it gets. In the scene during which Hoke lets it be known that he has bought the car he’s driven for eight years from the used-car dealer Boolie sold it to, the chauffeur declares, “And keep your ashes off my upholstery.” The laughter sneaks out, but the scene also conveys Hoke’s strength.

In this production, there are neither punch lines every 90 seconds nor impassioned speeches. The soapboxes are not brought out; simple declarations speak louder. Hoke explodes when Miss Daisy refuses to let him stop the car to urinate, and there’s a shift in Miss Daisy’s understanding. Her arrogance and latent racism again and again are chipped away. A former teacher, Miss Daisy learns as much as—if not more than—she teaches, a sure sign of a great teacher. Driving Miss Daisy is full of warm sentiments, sure lessons and organic humor that, like good pumpkin pie, never stuff an audience.

The three actors trust the material, and their acting is as honest and sure as the play. Such simple fare needs actors long on honesty and short on “lying with enthusiasm.” Marshall, Edwards, and Markle have such honesty. There’s no straining for a moment, no contrived nattering muggery, no eyebrow acting, no forced quavering vocal tremor to announce in boldface that “this is an emotional moment.” Like the last image, the three feed the audience with a caring grace that leads an audience rightfully to its feet to say thank you. Capital Rep’s Driving Miss Daisy celebrates the simple pleasures of lives worth living.

 


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