Curtain Calls

Review: 'Driving Miss Daisy'
Excellent performances drive fine drama at Meadow Brook

It's probably safe to assume that more people have seen the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" than will ever attend the play from which it was adapted.
And that's a shame.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the film; after all, it won two Academy Awards and featured excellent performances by Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd.
It's simply that there's nothing quite like the experience of watching a story unfold before your very eyes on the legitimate stage, and it's in that setting where Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize winning script is best savored.
Uhry's story – now on stage at Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester Hills – follows the relationship that develops between a rich 72-year-old Jewish widow and the black man her successful and concerned son hires to be her chauffer. The two, Daisy Werthan and Hoke Coleburn, are initially disdainful towards one another, but a strong friendship is forged between them over the 25 years their lives are intertwined.
It's a magnificent love story, one that beautifully illustrates that humanity CAN triumph over prejudice, yet it's a play that is seriously under-produced.
The problem, I suspect, is that many theaters – professional and otherwise – are intimidated by the much-loved movie. After all, how possible is it for a director to find three actors skillful enough to believably age 25 years throughout the course of the play – let alone maintain a realistic Georgia accent? (Which, it should be noted, is distinctly different from what you'd hear in Mississippi or Arkansas.)
Casting the show was apparently quite easy for director John M. Manfredi!
For the role of Daisy, Manfredi chose award-winning actress Henrietta Hermelin, a longtime favorite of audiences throughout the area. It's a splendidly nuanced performance, as Hermelin slowly and expertly reveals the toll time takes on her feisty, strong-willed character.
Equally fine is 2003 Wilde Award recipient James Bowen who, with a twinkle in his eye, infuses the soft-spoken Hoke with great dignity.
And Paul Hopper once again offers excellent support as Boolie Werthan.
As the director pointed out in a "talk back" session that followed the final preview performance last Friday night, his vision for the show is markedly different from not only the movie, but from many previous stage productions, as well.
And for the most part, his vision works extremely well!
Rather than stage the play on its traditional bare stage with only two chairs or benches to signify a car, Manfredi places his actors on an imaginative set designed by Christy Fogarty. On one side sits Miss Daisy's colorful house, while in stark contrast, the other appears to be a non-descript alleyway, parts of which revolve to become Boolie's office and home. But pay close attention: As the years progress, set dressings and license plates change; photos and pillows come and go, and what was once a plain telephone becomes a call director on Boolie's desk.
Also intriguing are Manfredi's scene shifts. Non-descript stage hands wander about, almost always interacting with the three main characters as they ready the stage for the next scene. Although this helps keep the stage visually interesting, it occasionally slows the play's pace. A few minor "nips and tucks" would help improve the show's flow.
"Driving Miss Daisy" Presented Wednesday through Sunday at Meadow Brook Theatre, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester Hills, through Jan. 30. Tickets: $20 – $36. 248-377-3300.
The Bottom Line: Three excellent actors deliver fine performances in imaginative staging of Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

Preview: 'Shakespeare's R&J'
Shakespeare's classic love tragedy gets gender-bending makeover

Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" has had its share of re-imaginings over the centuries, but few – if any – have tackled the theme of gender identity in quite the same way playwright Joe Calarco did with his award-winning production, "Shakespeare's R&J."
"It's not a gay adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet," Todd Heywood said of the production his company, Sunsets with Shakespeare, will stage beginning this weekend at the RE Olds Anderson Rotary Barn at Woldumar Nature Center in Lansing. "It's an adaptation that explores gender roles, and I think that's been the hardest part for people to understand. We're not talking about sexual orientation; we're talking about gender and gender roles."
In Calarco's innovative tale, four boys at a Catholic boarding school meet secretly to read aloud Shakespeare's tragic love story. It doesn't take long for them to fall in love with the Bard's words, however, and soon they become enmeshed in the play's emotional drama. But when two of the boys read the roles of Romeo and Juliet exclusively, the group begins to question the roles men and women play in society. And as their understanding of the world around them turns upside down, certain universal truths emerge.
"When [the show] is done right, the line between genders blurs," Heywood said. "You forget you're watching Juliet and Romeo and instead you see the two guys talking about love and experiencing love."
Because it's not specifically a "gay play" but tackles gender identity, many within the LGBT community worldwide have refused to embrace it – something Heywood doesn't understand.
"It's timely in terms of addressing the fact that love is love, whether it's between two men or between a man and woman. Unfortunately within the context of our community, one of the powerful things I think we keep forgetting to talk about is how gender roles aid in the oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people," he said.
Finding four actors to play all of the characters in "Romeo and Juliet" wasn't too difficult, Heywood said. In fact, it was somewhat enlightening.
"More gay guys said no to the show than straight guys," he said. "With the straight guys, at least with the younger male actors, there's more of a movement to challenge themselves in terms of sexual identity on stage."
The result, then, is a cast made up of one gay actor and three straights – including the two who play Romeo and Juliet.
"They've done an incredible job of capturing the intimacy between men and translating that into the relationship between Romeo and Juliet," Heywood, the director, said. "They threw themselves into it and really took the risks. I think that's a sign of being secure in themselves."
One of the straight actors, Andy Barnhart, first met Heywood about five years ago when the two were involved with "Teens Talk: Parents Listen," a program that used theater to teach parents how to talk with their teenagers about difficult subjects. Barnhart has since appeared in several shows with Sunsets with Shakespeare.
The young actor had no qualms about auditioning for "Shakespeare's R&J.
"I thought it was a really interesting rendition," Barnhart said. "I thought it would be fun to play multiple characters. I don't think I've ever played a character playing another character. It allows me to explore a lot of my acting abilities."
Even being asked to play the role of Juliet didn't faze Barnhart. In fact, he suspected he'd land the part.
"I'm Andy Barnhart playing a guy who is playing a girl," Barnhart said. "It's just four guys reading the show so we don't take on feminine characteristics. We kind of destroy the gender lines, which is a cool thing I like about it. The lines deteriorate over the course of the show, so there's no more male or female – it's just people."
What's toughest, the young actor said, is simply trying to make sense of the Bard's text – something with which legions of actors before him have also had to struggle.
For Heywood, the tough part is getting the actors to transition quickly from one character to another.
"There are points in the show where one actor changes into two different characters in the course of three lines," Heywood said.
And the love scenes? They still work, according to Heywood – even though they are between two men.
"It's just as moving, which makes their ultimate tragedy that much more powerful!"
"Shakespeare's R&J" will play two weekends in Lansing and then head to Grand Rapids for a collaborative effort with the X Performance Group, the resident performing arts troupe at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. It's an endeavor Heywood has long envisioned.
"We've always talked about taking shows we're doing here in Lansing to Grand Rapids and vice-versa, but this is the first opportunity we've had to do that. It's an exciting partnership with another theater company to show off what we're doing on either side of the state," Heywood said.
No matter where audiences see "Shakespeare's R&J," Barnhart simply asks that they come with an open mind.
"It's a different way of looking at things," he said, "so it could be misinterpreted in many ways if you have a closed mind. But if you come with an open mind and imagination, you'll get the most out of the show. You'll have a lot of fun watching it!"
"Shakespeare's R&J" Presented Friday through Sunday by Sunsets with Shakespeare at the RE Olds Anderson Rotary Barn at Woldumar Nature Center on Old Lansing Road in Eaton County, Jan. 14 – 23; and at Morning Star 75 Coffee Shop, 10 Weston Street, Grand Rapids, Jan. 27 & 28. Tickets: $10. Send inquiries to [email protected].


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