Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Driven to Real Affection

Driven to Real Affection
By Tom Wachunas

    Sentimentality is a many splintered thing. We tend to dismiss those stories that have too much of it as hoakey and inconsequential. I suspect that when negative criticisms are leveled against a play or a movie because of its fluff content, the problem is often at least as much to be found in the performance as it is in the writing. When actors wallow too much in teary mush, it’s no doubt a reflection of the director’s vision.

     But like cholesterol, there’s the good  kind and the bad kind of sentimentality.  Alfred Uhry’s play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the 1988 Pulitzer for drama, and became an Oscar-winning movie (best picture) in 1989, is dripping with the good stuff – authentically heartwarming, not heart clogging. In directing the current Canton Players Guild Theatre production of the play, Dennis O’Connell has effectively seen to it that his actors keep their characters credible while not drowning in their own syrup.

    So who are the characters? The play opens just as Miss Daisy Werthen, a septuagenarian Jewish widow in Atlanta, has crashed her spanking new 1948 Packard into the neighbor’s garage. This is a last- straw incident, prompting her prosperous businessman son, Boolie, to hire for her a black chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn, to take over all driving duties. Daisy vigorously resists at first, but after she reluctantly gives in, her tolerance of Hoke progressively blossoms into full-fledged trust and friendship over the next 25 years.

   In keeping with the aim of the Players Guild ‘Stripped Away’ series of productions on its intimate arena stage, everything about this production is well designed for maximum dramatic affect with a minimum of special effect: a few pieces of furniture; a backdrop of painted panels (designed by Joshua Erichsen) that alternately suggest fancy wallpaper and an elegant garden; and a car comprised of two chairs facing forward.

    The character of Boolie is not just a superficial adjunct to the story. To that role, Scotland Gallo brings impressive substance – a warm mix of Southern gallantry, generosity, and compassion. He’s convincingly authentic, too, when conflicted between his Southern liberal Jewish world-view and an invitation to attend a dinner for Martin Luther King.

    Marci Paolucci (Miss Daisy) and Marvin L. Mallory (Hoke) are, separately and together, astonishing beyond words (but that never stopped me before). Paolucci’s heartrending transformation from the imperious and dictatorial Daisy at the beginning, the gradual dissipation of her fierce pride and independence, through to the completely thawed, docile, and loving woman in the nursing home at the end, is a riveting theatrical marvel to behold. Likewise, Mr. Mallory is a powerhouse of subtlety as he paints a compelling portrait of deference, dignity, feisty patience and affection, all tempered with an insistence that he be regarded as more than an anonymous servant, more than some “….back of the neck you look at while you goin’ wherever you want to go.”

    For as much as what these people say is certainly important, it’s how they say it that fuels their 25 year-long drive together with such palpable grace – with powerful facial expressivity and body language, right down to their progressively hunched backs and weary gaits.

    Here, then, is a truly stellar display of masterful stagecraft. The cast clearly respects this script, which  transcends artificial symbols, or gratuitous preaching on the era of racial divide wherein the story unfolds. Instead, they generously present real, breathing people, taking us on a memorable ride through the tender and coarse vicissitudes of their own mortality. And, except for the hopelessly cynical and stone-hearted among you, I guarantee good sentiment will out, and tears will be shed.

   Driving Miss Daisy, THROUGH MAY 6,  at the Players Guild William G. Fry Theatre, 1001 Market Ave. North, in Canton. Shows are Friday and Saturday 8 pm, and Sunday at 2:30 pm. All tickets $11, available at  www.playersguildtheatre.com or (330) 453 – 7617
  PHOTO by James Dreussi

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