June 25, 2009

'Driving Miss Daisy,' Ross Valley Players

Anne Ripley's Miss Daisy wields a map at her chauffer, Hoke (Bertron

Bruno), in RVP's current revival of "Driving Miss Daisy.

Phoning Miss Daisy

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

First, let it be said that an opportunity to see a performance by one of the grande dames of local theater, Anne Ripley, simply should not be missed. Ripley is cast in the leading role of Ross Valley Players' otherwise clunky revival of "Driving Miss Daisy," which opened July 11 to a nearly sold-out audience at the Barn Theatre in Ross. The English-born, classically trained veteran of the stage turns in a subtle and wistful interpretation of the sharp-tongued, formidable Atlanta widow Daisy Wertham that could, arguably, stand alone.

This project is also fortunate to have writer, director, actor and RVP newcomer Bertron Bruno in the cast. He plays Hoke Coleburn, the woman¹s black chauffer, and does so with the easy humor and grace of a practiced Southern raconteur. He, too, is an important figure in Bay Area community theater, having founded Pathlight Productions and Infinity Gospel Ministries in the Bayview-Hunters Point district of San Francisco, and continues to fight the good fight by involving young people in the self-expression and discipline of theater. He was -- again, arguably -- an excellent choice for this role.

Still, this is an impossibly dated selection for RVP's season finale, especially during an election year when the subject of race is back in the national dialogue, primarily because the presumptive Democratic nomineefor president is a multicultural male. It begs the question: Why would this venerable, 68-year-old company choose to close out its unremarkable 2007-2008 season with a play that addresses the subject of race from the perspective of 1987?

Writer Alfred Uhry took a lot of heat in 1987 when he first opened his play for an otherwise successful five-week run at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and again for his screenplay in 1989. Only last January, San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle referred to the 1989 Oscar-winning film of "Driving Miss Daisy" as a "ridiculous throwback" and unworthy of the prize. Most objected to what many found to be latent racism hidden in the story and the production.

To some, the story, told in a series of choppy vignettes, of a wealthy Jewish southern widow as she slowly warms up to her gradually empowered black driver, is an example of "edgy" modern theater.

However, the only thing on edge during this production was this reviewer's teeth.

While the two leads managed some subtlety and humor, they establish no palpable chemistry between the two of them, at least until the final scene. Three crucial opportunities for this connection were missed:
a) When Hoke confesses his inability to read and Daisy, a former schoolteacher, begins giving him lessons;
b) When the Jewish Daisy gives Hoke a "Christmas present"
c) When Hoke stands up for himself by going through the indignity of having to demand to ³pass water" during a long drive.
None of the required intensity of shame, tenderness and rage were anywhere in evidence in these all-important scenes.

There were other problems. Daisy¹s son Boolie is the play¹s third character (played genially enough by Alex Shafer), a superfluous intermediary whose apparent purpose is to handle the story¹s expository stuff, mostly on the telephone. It¹s a contrived plot device. Also, Boolie¹s loud sportswear costuming, perhaps to signify the passage of seasons, was mystifying, and in bold contrast to the wonderful choice of hats and scarves sported by Daisy from scene to scene by costume designer Michael A. Berg.

Equally mystifying were many of the choices by Cris Cassell, who has proven herself to be a gifted director in many past RVP productions ("Postmortem," "Over My Dead Body," "Proof"). For example, why did she confine the actors to the strict parameters of Ken Rowland¹s uncharacteristically lackluster set? Why pantomime car keys and not the roadmap? Why allow one actor to walk through an invisible car door that another has just closed? Why not use plush leather seats to suggest a car, instead of an awkward, lumbering contraption that looks like a cross between a golf cart and a tipped-over PortaPotty? Add to these, the confusing (if tasty) musical selections and accident-prone sound design of Billie Cox Jr. that had to be stopped and started during the July 11 performance; the synagogue that featured Christian choral music; as well as the telephone that didn¹t ring, and one can chalk it off, one supposes, to opening-night jitters, or the inequities of community theater.

However, those excuses just aren't good enough. Not by the standards of this most professional of semi-professional companies. Not with the talent pool to be found in Marin. Not in what purports to be a politically and culturally- enlightened community. Not by what we have come to expect from RVP.

Alas, there is nothing so condescending as the bleeding of a liberal¹s heart. This space cannot, in good conscience, participate in celebrating passive racism. Nor should it celebrate mediocrity.

There is an old saying about mediocrity: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Maybe so. Or maybe he's just suffering from limited vision.

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.