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By Bridgette M. Redman
Some stories are touching and poignant no matter how you tell them.
Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” is one of those well-written scripts that takes three people through the years 1948 to 1973 and explores such themes as interdependence, personal growth and the way big things in the world affect the way we relate to each other.
It’s one of the reasons the script has been a popular one among theaters since it came out in 1987.
Director Fran Rauth brings a fairly straight and sometimes flat interpretation of the play to the Great Escape Stage Company. The play is well-suited for their intimate, black box setting with a tight stage containing three separate locations.
It’s also a good choice for a theater that is making its transition from a non-professional community theater to professional theater. “Driving Miss Daisy” marks its first time being reviewed by EncoreMichigan.com as a professional show. It is a challenging transition to make, and an evolution that takes time. This production still shows many signs of its community theater roots from which it sprang, even while having promise it will continue to grow and flourish.
Most promising is the performance put in by Laura Russell. Russell brings vim and great vocal quality to the title role of Daisy Werthan. She made Daisy a spunky elderly woman who is determined to keep her independence and hold tight to her views of the world the way it was. She is most delightful when she gets a mischievous glint in her eyes and reveals the warmth and vitality of a character who could otherwise be written off as curmudgeonly.
Her chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn, is played by Count Laws, an actor whose background lies primarily in musical theater. His voice is deep and he handles the Southern accent competently.
While the play runs only 90 minutes (15 minutes longer than the program claims), many of the directorial and acting choices slowed things down. The play lacked the crispness that ought to be present in such a tight script. Not enough attention was paid to the little moments, such as the extra steps actors took once they opened the invisible car doors and supposedly stepped into the car. It left the audience wondering whether the car had a platform between the door and the seats. Miss Daisy always entered on the same side as Hoke, forcing her to slide across the bench so the audience could see her, a choice that lacked motivation and was sloppy in execution.
Most harmful, though, was the lack of variety or commitment from Laws. He gives Russell very little to work with in key scenes, delivering everything in the same manner and with no vocal variation. It was sometimes necessary to strain to hear him, as he swallowed his lines rather than letting them float out over the audience.
All of his aging took place between the penultimate scene and the last one, rather than showing a gradual aging over the two and a half decades of the play. Nor does he ever show any animation or energy. If he wins Miss Daisy over, it is through pure bull-headed presence and not through any charisma or understanding of their shared humanity.
It isn’t until the last scene where it is possible to feel any real connection or affection between the two, though Russell tries to show the changing relationship before the final moment.
Randy Lake’s Boolie Werthan serves his purpose of foil and comedic relief. He speaks clearly and lets his love for his mother show through his exasperation and actions.
Attention to such details are what can transform a play from mediocre to memorable. “Driving Miss Daisy” makes a start on that journey for the Great Escape Theatre Company and future productions hold the potential to arrive there.
If the cold weather continues, make sure you don’t arrive too early to the production. Doors open a half hour before the show, and the black box space has no lobby, so audiences must wait outside or in nearby dining establishments in downtown Marshall.
Once inside, though, the theater and the staff are warm and inviting. There is a commitment to Marshall and to their audiences that defies the cold weather.
While this production is flawed in its execution, it captures the poignancy at the end and leaves the audience with a message of how much we continue to need each other and how much we have in common even when we are outwardly very different.
‘Driving Miss Daisy’
Great Escape Stage Company, 155 W. Michigan Ave., Marshall. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday & 3 p.m. Sunday through March 9. 91 minutes; no intermission. $12-15. 269-781-2700. http://www.greatescapestagecompany.com