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Opening a Door: Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Spin on “Driving Miss Daisy”

The cast of SMP's "Driving Miss Daisy"

The cast of SMP’s “Driving Miss Daisy”

This production has been extended through March 20, 2013

Once seen mostly as a sweet, sometimes fascinating character study, Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has gradually become a subject of controversy, in much the way that “The Help” has. The genre, which tends to view the segregated south through the lens of the humanity created by personal interaction between the traditional white elite and their patient African-American domestics, has kind of had its day. That is, if one still plays those parts with that tendency to pigeonhole its participants.

What seems to set the new rendition of Uhry’s play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse apart from some others is the essential maturity of all the characters. This Daisy is terrified of being alone and covering it with bravado. This Hoke is a shy but manly figure whose deference is more to infirmity than color. This Boolie genuinely loves his mother, “gets” Hoke, and is personally cheered by the relationship his mother has with her confidante.

Director Christian Lebano, realizing this may not be an easy show for some, has even included in the program a set of questions for people to use as discussion starters after the play is done. It’s an acknowledgement of both the touching nature, and the baggage, of this play.

Still, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains, at heart, a play about distinct and interesting individuals. Impressive actors can make this piece what they will, and this is most certainly the case here.

Mary Lou Rosato ages with great physical accuracy as Miss Daisy, moving as an aged woman would while giving a refreshing balance of crochety-ness, underlying care, and subliminal fear to the part. Even the very end – a tough element of this play which is rarely done with subtlety – has a startling truth to it, which makes it particularly human.

Willie C. Carpenter gives Hoke more than just the usual dignity, but a kind of presence which lets him look Daisy’s son Boolie in the eye. These are not equals, perhaps, but these are both men who understand that the differences in their social standing are societal more than personal. Carpenter infuses Hoke with that manliness, and – once again – accurate view of the aging process, which make him Daisy’s rock as much as Daisy’s driver.

Perhaps most surprising is Brad Reed’s Boolie. Boolie is usually played as a classic “trying-to-fit-in Jewish Good Ol’ Boy.” Reed’s new spin on the part doesn’t humor or patronize his mother, but rather walks the delicate balance between his love of and identification with her and the realities of his business life in the Atlanta of his day. He gets her. He gets Hoke. He even sometimes seems a tiny bit envious of their ability to live honestly themselves. This portrait ties the whole piece together in interesting ways: a new view, if you will, of the entire proceeding.

Kudos also go to the show’s production values. Gary Wissman’s blissfully simple set keeps the pace of the play (which is performed without intermission) moving right along. Kristen Kopp’s costumes are accurate right down to Daisy’s shoes – impressive for such a small theater. Simple polish seems to be the hallmark of the whole production.

So, take a look at this “Driving Miss Daisy.” Though it remains admittedly controversial, a chance for a new window into such a piece is always useful. And that’s what this production offers: a new window, a new slant on something which has often gotten either too cosy or too disquietingly stereotypical. Whether you agree or disagree with the play or the interpretation, the discussion to follow can be a fine exercise all on its own.

What: “Driving Miss Daisy” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors (65 and older), $15 youth (13-21), $12 children (12 and under) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

At Sierra Madre Playhouse: A Kinder, Gentler “Mockingbird”?

The more you know about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that great classic book of the 1960s, the more fascinating this classic becomes. Today the tale proves controversial for its childish tone, and for, as Slate writer Stephen Metcalf says, it’s white lawyer protagonist’s “preposterously unblinking courtesy” which may be seen as having “served to counsel gradualism and procedural nicety, even as the Civil Rights movement had started demanding something more.” Still, the book is taught in ¾ of America’s schools, and the film and play adaptations have reached wide followings. Some consider it the most popular American novel. Nostalgia, even politically charged nostalgia, sells.

Not surprising, then, that the venerable Sierra Madre Playhouse should choose to produce one of the better of those adaptations, by Christopher Sergel. Perhaps anticipating the vast popularity of the piece, they’ve also gone all out in production values. Still, the process of putting such a large story on such a small stage does lead to some interesting choices. Director Michael Cooper makes some of them work well, while others prove overly revisionist – a softening even of the soft-focus lens this story has always placed on institutional racism.

Most reading this can virtually recite the storyline. As seen mostly through the eyes of Scout, a roughly 8-year-old tomboy, we watch the vibrations through tiny Maycomb, Alabama as a poor black family man is arrested and tried for the rape of an even poorer white girl. That he is innocent is a given. That, despite the efforts of his idealistically pacific white lawyer, Scout’s father Atticus, he will be convicted is also a given. What becomes central is Atticus’ almost innocent refusal to acknowledge the ill will of others – a belief that almost costs his children’s lives.

Director Cooper has chosen to emphasize the calm quality of Atticus to the point where the entire enterprise operates at a slow, underplayed hum. This proves effective when the nasty and vindictive bully Bob Ewell (an enthusiastically villainous David Preston) sparks with a vicious energy against the placid whole. Yet, at other times the calmness, even of young children supposedly scared of boogey men, is like looking at the story through cheesecloth.

Brighid Fleming, as Scout, and Michael Andrew Stock as her older brother Jem, play their parts as calm little adults, which works, but only sometimes. Indeed, though Christian Lebano’s gentle Atticus and Tara Thomas’ lovingly commanding housekeeper, Calpurnia, often order them to do things like go inside, something which you would think would at least evoke a reaction (perhaps an occasional start toward compliance, even), such orders aren’t acknowledged in any way. In a child this would be overt and obstinate “attitude” – something which one does not usually associate with Scout or Jem.

This show sports a huge cast – perhaps the largest in a non-musical I’ve ever seen at SMP. Diane Kelber gives the narrator, their neighbor Maudie, warmth and open-mindedness. Alex Egan makes the sheriff wisely long-suffering. Robert Manning, Jr. gives the accused man, Tom, a meek nobility, while, as his accuser, Lindsay Wagner’s frightened, dumpy young woman underscores the villainy of the entire proceeding. As the odd boy Dill, who befriends Scout and Jem (a character based on Harper Lee’s real life-long association with Truman Capote), Patrick Fitzsimmons is certainly odd. The rest of the cast also does admirably at creating the town in small, though one is somewhat startled at the sympathetic turn Miguel Perez gives the usually partisan judge.

The set, by top-notch designer Gary Wissmann, crams a huge amount onto the tiny SMP stage, usually to fine effect, though the isolated nature of Boo Radley’s house is difficult to define. Carlos Brown has captured the look of 1935 southern clothing, and the social stratification of the time. It all looks very period.

In sum, please don’t get me wrong. I am very fond of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its criticisms notwithstanding. Yet, when – in that most seminal moment – the African-American reverend (well played by Marvin Gay) asks Scout and Jem to stand along with the rest of the “colored” gallery as their father walks by, and all the whites in the court stand too, the kinder, gentler, diluted version of racist 1930s Alabama is almost too much to bear. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t like that.

What: “To Kill a Mockingbird” When: Through November 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children 12 and under Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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