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Driving Miss Daisy; Body Parts

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DRIVING MISS DAISY

Briar Street Theatre

BODY PARTS

Royal-George Theatre

There's a bowing ceremony at the end of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy as deliberate as any you'll find at a sumo wrestling match. It goes like this: Matt DeCaro--who plays Miss Daisy's son, Boolie--comes out first and takes his bow. He's joined after a moment by Bill Cobbs, who, as Hoke Coleburn, does Miss Daisy's driving. These two bow to each other and to the audience. Finally Miss Daisy herself, Sada Thompson, enters. DeCaro and Cobbs bow to her, and she to them, and all three turn again to the audience.

It's a neat little ritual, expressing mutual respect and connectedness while maintaining a sense of the pecking order--DeCaro, dignified at the bottom; Thompson, graciously but very definitely at the top.

And that's why it's the perfect way to close this particular show. Driving Miss Daisy is all about respect, connectedness, and the pecking order. Set in Atlanta during the 25 years from 1948 to 1973 (that is, from the birth of the civil rights movement to the rebirth of the south; from Martin Luther King's 19th year to Jimmy Carter's 49th), Driving Miss Daisy gives us a look at the proper but loving relationship--the respectful connectedness--that grows up between a feisty Jewish matron and the philosophical black man her son hires to drive her around after she totals not only her new car but a couple of small buildings as well.

The relationship develops pretty much as you'd expect it to, given the setting, the characters, and Uhry's gentle sentimentalism. Seventy-two years old at the outset, Daisy spends her last two and a half decades moving from fierce independence to an almost complete helplessness. Along the way, she performs her bowing ceremony, her jittery little dance of accommodation, with Hoke. He tolerates her stiff-necked pride. She teaches him to read. He gives her a lesson in the realities of bigotry. She gives him a way to fill his days. He appreciates her tart wit. She learns to appreciate his humanity.

And so on. Inevitable as it is, the gradual bonding between Hoke and Daisy is a charming thing to watch. Uhry sees to that. A fairly successful lyricist, he gives this play the clarity and economy of a good show tune. He's never ponderous--or poetic, either, for that matter--saving the big speeches and building his drama instead out of hokey but effective little interactions like the time Daisy gives Hoke a fifth-grade copybook for Christmas, or another when Hoke shows up for work despite an ice storm. Uhry goes for a laugh or a tear as cleanly and directly--if not quite as loudly--as Neil Simon. And he almost always gets them.

Driving Miss Daisy sticks resolutely to the tip of every intellectual iceberg, refusing to climb down into ambiguities that might mess up its simple-but-satisfying oppositions. That's not to say, however, that it's without insight. One of the best things about this play is its evocation of the laws, not to mention the ironies, of America's caste system. Though she makes no bones about her Jewishness, and though she positively fetishizes her working-class background, Daisy nevertheless identifies strongly with the good white Protestant burghers of Atlanta society. Even kids herself she's one of them. And treats Hoke accordingly. Unable to concede that she and Hoke are both outsiders in the white south, Daisy insists on maintaining the etiquette of privilege. She holds tight to the pecking order.

Uhry gives Daisy every chance to come down off her high horse. She gets the opportunity, for instance, to chuck her sense of propriety and take Hoke along as her guest to a United Jewish Appeal dinner honoring Martin Luther King. But a breakthrough of that magnitude would owe more to a deus ex machina than character development. It's a measure of the play's essential honesty that Hoke stays outside.

Uhry's not always so scrupulous, of course. Perhaps his worst contrivance comes in the scene in which Daisy hears that a synagogue's been bombed. She's made to react not only with shock but with a bizarre naivete, as if the possibility of anti-Semitic violence had never crossed her mind. This just isn't believable coming from a woman who was all of 39 years old in 1915, when a prosperous Atlanta Jew named Leo Frank was first framed and then lynched for the murder of a Christian girl. Frank's martyrdom was big news all over the United States. No member of the Atlanta Jewish community would be likely to forget about it. Given that history, Daisy's surprise just doesn't make sense.

And Sada Thompson can't quite make it make sense. An extremely competent actress who knows how to tug every last shred of humor and pathos out of a line, Thompson is engaging but never quite credible. She communicates neither Daisy's Jewishness nor, toward the end, her great age. As much as I enjoyed it, I couldn't find the truth in Thompson's performance.

Matt DeCaro's Boolie is another pleasant blank--though I'm not sure what DeCaro might have done to fill him in. A big, bluff, golf-playing, club-joining hail-fellow type, Boolie's basically supposed to be a pleasant blank. Still, even blanks have their reasons, and DeCaro could do more to convey Boolie's.

Bill Cobbs's work is no more substantial than anybody else's, but then it doesn't have to be. As Hoke, he's not so much a character as an archetype: the wry, wise servant who can teach his masters a little something about true dignity. Cobbs's triumph lies in his ability to bring warmth and an element of irony to that archetype. He's also beautiful to watch as he mimes mundane gestures like opening and closing a car door or moving his foot from the accelerator to the brake.

There are lovely and unexpected silences in this show as it's directed by Ron Lagomarsino. Journeymen that they are, Thompson and Cobbs know how to use the gaps in the language as effectively as the words in achieving their laughs and their intimacies. Thomas Lynch's set, too, makes effective use of gaps. Lynch provides the crucial, world-creating details that tell us all we need to know about each location in the play.

Driving Miss Daisy won this year's Pulitzer Prize for playwrighting. It really shouldn't have. It's nothing like a great play, and I don't imagine it was intended to be one, either. What it is is a small, solid, thoughtful, middlebrow entertainment in a time when, small, solid, thoughtful, and middlebrow is considered an impossible combination.

It's very much to their credit that the people who put this production together recognized what they had and resisted the temptation to blow it up into something more imposing. Something more befitting the aura of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. There's not even an intermission here. Now that's integrity--especially when you consider how many soft drinks, lemon drops, and T-shirts can be sold during an intermission. Producers Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt kept Miss Daisy honest. And that's why it works.

Body Parts, I'm promised, will be closed by the time you read this, So it probably isn't fair of me to talk about it. But I want my revenge.

As Driving Miss Daisy did, this cabaret-style musical should've played without an intermission, if only to make it harder for people to run away before act two. I mean, how ya gonna keep 'em in their seats after they've seen the first 9 of 16 embarrassing--or, more in the spirit of the show, barfy--numbers, connected by a silly--or, pukey--Gidget-grows-up plot line? If I'd had my way I'd have been out of there after the ditty about students eating the legs off frogs they just dissected. Gross.

At first Body Parts looks like it might make a decent touring production to take around to high school hygiene classes. Little Ilene's confused about the changes in her body as she matures. Boys puzzle her, she gets her period, and so forth. It might be fun for kids to get into those issues by means of a song.

But before long, composer James Quinn's preoccupations start asserting themselves. First, there's breasts. Breasts seem to be the body part that interests Quinn most: he's got his cast talking and singing and joking about them at considerable, one might say inordinate, length. And in a manner that seems, well, shall we say, prefeminist?

The whole show comes across, in fact, as a simultaneously vulgar and wistful look back at a more innocent, and consequently more prurient time--when men were men, women were girls, penises were peepees, and vaginas didn't have any name at all. Quinn's vision of childhood and adolescence is positively Falwellian: Ilene conquers her confusions with the aid of her aw shucks parents, marries her childhood sweetheart, and already has a bun in the oven when it's time for all of us to say "So long" to all of you.

Never mind. If you want real songs about the body, read Whitman. As for Body Parts, I only wish it were open so I could urge you to stay away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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