It’s been more than two decades since Gina Austin and Ray Wills have shared a Wichita stage.
That was back in the 1990s when she played orphan-hating Miss Hannigan and he played beaming New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt for Music Theatre of Wichita’s “Annie.”
The two also teamed for “Side by Side by Side by Sondheim” at the now-long-closed alternative musical venue the Marple Theatre downtown.
Wills went on to a successful Broadway career in such shows as Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” going on for Tony-winning lead Nathan Lane more than 40 times and later on tour in Los Angeles for Jason Alexander. He also appeared in “Candide” opposite Patti Lupone, “Wonderful Town” and “Big: The Musical” as well as making frequent appearances on TV series like “Law & Order,” “The Guiding Light” and “90210.”
Austin, Wills’ drama teacher at Wichita West High for three years, went on to complete 30-plus years in West’s classrooms before doing another 10 years as drama instructor at Butler Community College, finally retiring just last year.
Now student and teacher are reunited on equal terms for Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” to kick off the new year at the Forum Theatre. The show previews at 8 p.m. Thursday and officially opens at 8 p.m. Friday.
Austin plays Miss Daisy, a wealthy, cantankerous Jewish widow in the South who is forced by her well-meaning son – played by Wills – to give up driving for safety concerns and be chauffeured around Atlanta by a wise and very patient black driver, played by Huron Breaux. The unlikely bonding between passenger and driver over a quarter century from the late 1940s to the early 1970s during the tumultuous civil rights era is the poignant and joyous heart of the story.
“It’s a great little piece that has no need of fancy trappings or special effects or fireworks,” said Deb Campbell, longtime head of Signature Theatre based at Scottish Rite Temple, who is guest directing. Set and lights are by Tyler Lessin, costumes by Kathryn Page Hauptman and props by Aaron Profit.
“What makes it precious are the wonderful characters, and that’s what we are focusing on. We are doing it all with the acting,” Campbell said. “The message is that the more we learn about each other, the more we can love each other. It’s about our commonality.”
Austin is a veteran performer at many local theaters, from Crown Uptown to Wichita Community Theatre to Stage One, and most recently was seen as balletic stripper Tessie Tura in Music Theatre’s 2010 “Gypsy,’’ reprising the role she did in MTW’s 1992 version. She sees her latest character, Miss Daisy, as “stubborn, willful, very independent and set in her ways” as she plays her from age 72 to 97.
“I like that Daisy is stubborn because she has a right to be. She has always been very independent, but giving up driving threatens to take that away,” Austin said. “But Daisy is also likable. She is so recognizable. Everybody knows somebody like her in their family. That’s what makes her endearing.”
The challenge for Austin is portraying a character faced with changing her long-ingrained attitudes as the world changes around her.
“It takes her a while because, at her age, everything is so set. As a Jew in the South, she had experienced anti-Semitism, but she doesn’t think of it as the same thing as racial discrimination against blacks,” Austin said. “It is her relationship with her driver, Hoke, that changes that.”
Breaux, who plays Hoke, agrees that it’s a delicate dance between him and Miss Daisy.
“Hoke is persistent. I like his determination and his ability to handle himself in all sorts of uncomfortable situations,” said Breaux, pianist and canter at St. Mary’s Cathedral, who has performed “Black Nativity” at the Kennedy Center for the Arts and appeared in rare works at the William Inge Festival in Independence. Most recently, he was seen locally in “Hello, Dolly” and “The Full Monty” for the Forum.
“Hoke is a trailblazer, a pioneer of sorts. He is smart. But is his ability to handle things well-intentioned or manipulative? I had to think about that. I figure that this isn’t the first time he’s worked for a family different than his own. Because he is a black man in the South, he is in a unique position to reach out to a Jewish family,” Breaux said.
“He makes a lot of sense. And when Miss Daisy has difficulties, he takes control with compassion. While the play is set from 1948 to 1973, it is relevant to what’s going on today. It challenges the way people think about things – myself included,” Breaux said.
As Boolie, the son who hires Hoke to drive his mother, Miss Daisy, Wills said his character has a great sense of humor but is well aware that he and his family are Jews surrounded by rednecks.
“Even though they are wealthy and prominent, Boolie knows he has to play certain games or risk losing customers at the printing business started by his father. At one point, he is asked if he is going to attend an event with Martin Luther King. He wants to go, but he knows he can’t be seen there,” said Wills, who returned to Wichita last year on a sabbatical from Broadway to give back to Wichita schools as an artist-in-residence. He’s been teaching at Wichita State University and Kapaun Mount Carmel and teaching/directing at Newman University while taking an occasional turn on local stages.
Wills is thrilled at the idea of working with his high school drama teacher again because it’s on a whole new level.
“We’ve known each other since I was 16, which is almost 40 years. We’ve gone from student/teacher to student/mentor to friends/equals. We have a shorthand (for communication) about us,” Wills said.
“She cast me in my first play, ‘You Can’t Take It With You.’ After the audition, I thought I did pretty good so I called her and told her she should cast me in a particular part. I didn’t know the rules. I guess I was a presumptuous kid,” Wills said with a laugh. “She said she originally wasn’t going to cast me but that she wanted to see what I could do.”
Austin later arranged for Wills’ first trip to New York for a theater tour.
“I could see the spark in him as a kid. He was focused and together and had a real stage presence. He also had the motivation and the drive,” Austin said. “He assured me that he could do it, and that’s just what he did.”
When Wills made his Broadway debut in “Anna Karenina” in 1992, Austin bought a special glam outfit – a black off-the-shoulder pantsuit – to attend but then discovered she didn’t have enough money for the plane ticket to New York. She ended up selling a vintage Barbie pristine in its original box that she had received as a child to get the funds. The New Yorker magazine heard about it and wrote a breezy “Goings On About Town” item about it for the Sept. 14, 1992, issue.
“Both Gina and I have copies of it framed,” Wills said.
“When my fellow cast members heard that my high school drama teacher was coming to opening night, they were all saying ‘how nice’ and pictured her hobbling in on her cane. But when she arrived, she came flying into the theater being all fabulous like Auntie Mame. They weren’t expecting that,” Wills said with a laugh.