January 17, 2014

Forum Theatre’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ a gem

At its most basic, visceral level, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” is a love story.

At its most basic, visceral level, Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” is a love story.

Not a love story in the pedestrian romantic sense, but rather on a soul level as two people who would seem to be worlds apart discover over the course of three decades what gloriously kindred spirits they are.

One is Daisy Werthan, a well-off Jewish widow who, because of age and privilege, is thoroughly independent and set in her ways, expecting everyone to defer to her. The other is Hoke Colburn, a working-class black man hired as her chauffeur, who is just as independent, but who has learned a quiet diplomacy born of survival skills needed in the pre-civil rights South.

And in the sensitive, capable hands of director Deb Campbell and her inspired cast, this new Forum Theatre production is a beautiful little gem that often gently tickles the funny bone. More importantly, Campbell and crew find the right balance between heartwarming and heartbreaking, leaving us moved and enthralled as well as entertained.

Miss Daisy comes to crotchety, somewhat fragile life through Gina Austin, longtime Wichita drama instructor and veteran performer on countless local stages. Austin plays Daisy from her 70s to her 90s with spirited dignity that refuses to be cowed. She may have become too old to drive herself, but she refuses to relinquish control of her life.

Proving to be a fortuitous match is her driver Hoke, played by Huron Breaux, who is nationally known for gospel music workshops and locally as a church music director for 33 years. He’s currently at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Breaux exudes an easy, laid-back manner but with a supreme dignity. His speech is measured and non-threatening, but his deep voice commands our complete attention. And there’s often a sly and sharp point he slips in with a disarming smile.

While not in the thick of the verbal fray, Ray Wills as Daisy’s loving but exasperated son Boolie plays a crucial role in bringing the two together and watching on the sidelines as they challenge each other’s sensibilities and expectations. Wills is a former student of Austin’s who went on to a successful Broadway career, notably in “The Producers,” and is now back in Wichita on sabbatical as an artist in residence for Wichita State and Newman universities. He was seen here last year as Harry S. Truman in “Give ’em Hell, Harry.” This show provides a unique reunion with his mentor.

Wills has an engaging, sometimes diplomatically jovial presence as a Southern gentleman who has a lively mind right beneath his placid surface, particularly since as a Jew – even a prominent one – in the South, he must, as he says, “play the game” of fitting in.

Uhry’s dialogue is direct and heartfelt without literary flourishes or flash. It is poetic in its beautiful, truthful – and sometimes brutal – simplicity. Miss Daisy and Hoke verbally thrust and parry, gradually filling the voids in each other’s lives. They have both felt like outsiders, she for her religion and gender and he for his race. Theirs becomes a friendship as deep as it is unlikely.

The show runs 90 minutes with no break and is a collection of many short vignettes, almost like a diary, hitting key moments from 1948 to 1973. Scenes are linked by simple, elegant, evocative music provided by Paul Jackson at the piano and Tracy Keraly at the cello.

Period costumes by Kathryn Page Hauptman subtly hint at the passing eras (although old ladies and men aren’t really style setters). The set and lighting design by Tyler Lessin is impressionistic, with realistic furniture and props in front of window frames hanging in mid-air suggesting rooms without the need of actual walls. The car that Hoke squires Miss Daisy around in is suggested by two piano benches, one in front of the other, leaving all details of make, model and year to our imaginations.

My only nitpick is a technical one. When the “car” is center stage for the key and intimate driving scenes, it would help us believe more in the illusion if main set pieces and props behind them could be in shadow or masked. In full light, that focus is diluted and the two look like they are “driving” in a living room.

But even with that bit of disconnect, this production is a rare and powerful theatrical moment that’s not to be missed.

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