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Stage Review: Driving Miss Daisy

The performance-driven Driving Miss Daisy opened this weekend at Burbank, California’s Colony Theatre at Burbank Town Center. It’s been 30 years since playwright Alfred Uhry brought this quietly elegant and understated work to New York City and slightly less since this piece in his Atlanta trilogy won literature’s Pulitzer Prize. Like a play from another racially-themed city trilogy, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-based Fences, Driving Miss Daisy is a simply structured slice of life. So, don’t expect something other than a display of naturalism.

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With infectiously transitional pop music such as songs performed by Doris Day and Burl Ives, and Genetra Tull’s finely detailed, creatively applied scenic design for a small stage, the setting for this story about a wealthy white woman in the South and her black driver begins neatly in the late Forties. These assets become liabilities as the sparse design barely changes — and the music’s occasionally too obscure or out of order — which fails to mark the passage of time. The sense of time passing is crucial to Driving Miss Daisy‘s success.

This is because the bond between Daisy (Donna Mills, Knots Landing) and chauffeur Hoke (Arthur Richardson) evolves organically. Daisy is a prickly old lady of 72 years old and, as a pre-civil rights era Southern Negro, Hoke is a second-class citizen. As in the outstanding and undeservedly maligned 1989 motion picture, which won Oscar’s Best Picture award, their bond builds at the patronage of her son and his employer, Boolie, played here with precision, subtlety and skill by James Leo Ryan.

Ms. Mills is an accomplished actress and her acting has never been better. Playing down her character’s fear and narrow-mindedness without diluting either, Mills modulates and intones just exactly to the right extent. She’s softer but no less guarded and difficult as the aging Jew in Georgia. Mills knows when to let a co-star take the lead in this uniquely drawn character arc. She delivers a biting look, she rubs her knees, she visits her late husband’s grave and, always, the veteran actress leaves room for the wider perspective.

Uhry’s hardy tale of three distinctive lives revolves around the tension, separatism and distance of mid-20th century undercurrents of race, sex, age, ethnicity and other factors. In this sense, Richardson’s Hoke, too, well played by the actor, thinks about his own wants and worth and rightly acts in his own interest. Hoke, who speaks of having wrestled hogs north of Macon, prejudges people, too, gently chastising his boss for choosing not to have kids and constantly referring to the family’s being Jewish. “You Jews,” the chauffeur declares, as the times, tales and subcultures both change and, in some ways, remain the same. But, Richardson, too, plays perfectly against his co-star, specifically Ms. Mills’ somewhat volatile Miss Daisy. His Hoke cautiously checks in the rear-view mirror, expresses an intention to work, admits to a deficiency and, watchfully, checks and indulges his pride as meticulously as he polishes the car.

Ryan’s performance as Boolie adds depth to both Hoke and Miss Daisy while offering a certain context on how the white, male, Jewish businessman advances progress through his own achievement. Indeed, Boolie’s business success underwrites what drives his mother, Miss Daisy, and his employee, Hoke, even as lynching, subservience and Martin Luther King put the strife and struggle for individual rights front and center. That I saw this play on the day a church was attacked almost 59 years to the date that a temple was bombed — an attack which serves as a plot point — underscores the play’s relevance. Driving Miss Daisy‘s contrast of harmony amid agony is at once truthful, thoughtful and reassuring.

This production, directed by Heather Provost and scheduled to run at the Colony Theatre through December 10, can build on this theme with greater period detail in music and staging, if not necessarily its three performances, which were, this opening weekend, extremely well done.

Stage Review: The Rainmaker

Small theatrical productions in Los Angeles are one of my favorite artistic activities. Over the years, I’ve worked on, seen, covered, reviewed and supported many local stage adaptations, from Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Night of January 16th and Ideal to plays by Neil Simon, Agatha Christie and Edmond Rostand. So, when one of my Writing Boot Camp students — a season ticketholder at the Lincoln Stegman Theatre in the San Fernando Valley — invited me to a new production of The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash, which I’ve seen produced on film but not on stage, I couldn’t resist.

The play is the thing, as someone once said or wrote. This remarkable, simple and subtle story of human sexuality, unspooled in a barnyard one-night stand between a charismatic con man and a lonely, intellectual spinster, really holds up well. Set in Kansas in 1937 during the drought, The Rainmaker‘s about the Curry family’s encounter at their farm with a fast-talking stranger who takes a liking to the clan, especially their mentally challenged Jimmy, a character which in retrospect might’ve been considered autistic, and Lizzie, a plain woman in the motherless clan who dresses like a sack of potatoes. With a father who feeds her idealism if not realism, Lizzie’s all worked up with no place to channel her wants. If you’ve seen the somewhat stagey Fifties movie version — with Earl Holliman as Jimmy, Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie and Burt Lancaster in the title role — you know what happens.

On the Stegman’s confined stage, which continues for another week or so in North Hollywood through November 19, it’s as magical as it is on film. The Rainmaker is carefully structured as a drama. It is talky, as brother Noah comes closest to a villain trying to get everyone on the farm to level themselves with reality, and the show suffers in stretches from the slow, claustrophobic staging. But, fundamentally, The Rainmaker dramatizes the prospect of man-woman sex through its contrast between two types of men for Lizzie’s asking: the introvert and the extrovert. I’ll let you guess who’s who in this tradeoff but the suspense lies in watching both men bring out the best, which is to say the whole man, in themselves.

As the small town’s awkward lawman, AJ Sass is excellent and, as Lizzie’s physically imposing, domineering older brother Noah, Mark Dippolito is spot on.

So is the Stegman’s lighting, set and production design, mostly by director Joe Fiske in cooperation with lighting designer Jamie Hitchcock, Stanley Brown, who capably plays Lizzie’s father, and Mark Stegman. The whole cast and crew are generally fine, though director Fiske, who plays the sexually voracious con man, errs in casting and directing himself as a more restrained or New Age rainmaker, lacking the magnetism to convince the audience that he’s got the appetite and character of a man who does what he does to and for repressed Lizzie (Carla Betz).

The Rainmaker, with its drumbeat theme that being greedy for living in (not to be confused with for) the moment is perfectly human, still makes an impact. “Stop wondering if you’re good enough,” a wise man instructs a spirited if wounded soul halfway through the plain, prairie tale. “Know that you are and start acting like it.” One hears a lot these days about what everyone says, does and knows in Tinseltown. It typically comes from those who’ve already made it in Hollywood, often for the worst reasons, or from those who’ve got an axe to grind, often for the best reasons. But people like Joe Fiske and this small, hardworking cast and crew put on thoughtful shows every day here in La La Land without much notice. They do it honestly and diligently and they barely get the recognition they deserve.

See The Rainmaker (produced by two women, for those keeping score, Norma Burgess and Debbie Sadlouskas) for $12 a ticket at the Lincoln Stegman Theatre (which ran Night of January 16th earlier this year) at 6020 Radford Avenue in North Hollywood, California 91606. Call for information and tickets at (818) 509-0882.

Movie Review: Fences

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Playwright August Wilson’s adapted Pittsburgh-based play of the same name, Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the late 1980s, is a movie for Paramount. The result, directed by actor Denzel Washington (Book of Eli, Philadelphia, Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Malcolm X), who co-stars with Viola Davis (Prisoners, Doubt, The Help), is affecting.

Fences is about the folks next door. I knew this when I saw it at the Pasadena Playhouse with Angela Bassett (Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Boyz N the Hood). It’s heavy drama about life’s give and take, energy expense and how daily living leaves you feeling spent. Fences‘ easy, natural rhythm in a Western Pennsylvania family’s ordinariness lulls the audience into making too little out of what comes on at first as a bit too strong.

Mr. Washington, whose acting in lesser moments tends to come on too strong, understands the dense material, which is not easily disposed to cinematic adaptation. He lets Wilson’s liberal use of the word nigger disarm the audience and grant a pass to see black people in their middle class, middle century, middle American urban enclave. All the trappings are here, if you think about it: the angry black man, the strong black woman, the young buck.

But Fences is not driven by race. In glances, meltdowns and gestures, Fences shows the toll that mixing tradition, religion and romanticism take on a man, a woman, a friend, a marriage and a family. Before hip hop, Bill Cosby and Michael Jordan, at the dawn of the American exceptionalism of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, there was the uniquely post-war, pre-Civil Rights era of migratory black Americans in industrial cities such as Pittsburgh. Neatly framed Fences bundles this aspect with the onset of progress, unfulfilled lives, the shame of blended families and fathers that abandon children—and fathers that do not—and how the American Negro experience goes the way of becoming universal. Fences gets bleak, serious and sometimes depressing. But it borders and never crosses into maudlin territory.

Like its cultural cousin, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which is more pointed and powerful, Fences drags you down to impel you to pull yourself up.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an aspirational garbageman who was once a Negro league baseball player and has since become an ex-convict, husband, father, drunkard and motormouth. He’s a loud, extroverted physically powerful man in his early 50s. He’s sexually voracious and he spews and lusts for life. In speeches and backyard scenes where he aims to build a fancy fence made of the finest pinewood, it becomes clear that his undone athletic ability manifests in rage and anxiety. He chastises his sons, rails against mooches and thugs, demands that he be called “sir” and that his youngest son, Cory (perfectly cast Jovan Adepo, who is excellent), keep working at the A & P and forget about a sports scholarship. He groans about the city’s refusal to hire blacks as garbage truck drivers, tells his oldest son and best friend (outstanding Stephen Henderson, Tower Heist, Lincoln) while passing a bottle of gin that he was “scared of my daddy.”

Above all, he tells his wife Rose (Davis), and this is where things get complicated—in the sense that life is sometimes complicated—that he works hard, expends his best efforts and that “[t]hat’s all I got.” He means it. Whatever his flaws and mistakes, he’s telling the truth, if not the whole truth. His pal Bono presses Troy on this topic. Eventually, everyone pays the price of going beyond pre-set boundaries.

That family drama plays out in a modest home filled with crosses, pictures of Christ and The Last Supper and a cheerfully handicapped relative named Gabriel should not be taken literally. Troy bemoans religion and goes by his own thoughts, though he dares the Grim Reaper, invokes the Devil and has faith, not confidence, in himself, which leads to a lazy thinking that yields his greatest flaw—he confuses duty with love—which produces the film’s greatest tragedy.

Showing its stage play origins, Fences is too wordy and expository but the cast, especially the leads, reprising their 2010 Broadway roles, is rich and layered which more than compensates. As a director, Denzel Washington is deliberate and nostalgic, blurring the screen when it matters, adding flowers in the window, dropping a rose at the fence and threading  the play’s painful codependency into the actors’ faces and performances. The talented Viola Davis and Mr. Washington as wife and husband have adult conversations depicting the impact of ideas—chiefly, selflessness—on the whole of an ordinary life and both give strong performances. Ultimately, Fences blends cautionary and fairy tale and conveys that life is a kind of duty. This philosophy may be 100 percent wrong (it is by my thinking) but here it is planted and pictured with forcefulness, humor, warmth and honesty.