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Masterful acting drives Westcoast’s ‘Miss Daisy’

The cast of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “Driving Miss Daisy” is, from left, Taurean Blacque as Hoke, Carolyn Michel as “Daisy” and Kraig Swartz as “Boolie.”
The cast of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s “Driving Miss Daisy” is, from left, Taurean Blacque as Hoke, Carolyn Michel as “Daisy” and Kraig Swartz as “Boolie.” PUBLICITY PHOTO

Most of us have seen “Driving Miss Daisy” at least once. The play has been a big hit in New York a couple of different times, the 1989 film was exceedingly popular and made Morgan Freeman a star, a lesser-known film version a couple of years ago with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury aired on PBS, and the stage version is a staple for regional theater companies around the country.

Because we’re all so familiar with it, it’s easy to forget what a truly great work of art “Driving Miss Daisy” is. The current production at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota is here to remind us.

The story, for anyone who may not know, is about the relationship between a genteel but ornery Jewish Southern woman and the African-American man who is hired to be her driver. They mistrust each other at first — she’s even openly disdainful — but over the decades of the play’s action they grow to love each other. They live together through the profound changes in American society of the 1950s and 1960s together. Daisy teaches Hoke to read. Carolyn Michel, who plays Daisy in this production, said that these two characters, in another era, probably would have ended up marrying each other. That’s exactly right: “Driving Miss Daisy” is, at its heart, a love story.

It’s very much an actor’s and a writer’s play. There’s little opportunity for grand sets or effects, so the focus remains squarely on the three characters (Daisy, her driver, Hoke, and her son, Boolie) and on the wonderful words of Alfred Uhry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, and later an Oscar for the screenplay.

The acting in the WBTT production is as close to perfect as you’re likely to see on an area stage.

The acting in the WBTT production is as close to perfect as you’re likely to see on an area stage. Michel, who’s best known for her work with Asolo Repertory Theatre, is appropriately irascible but still overwhelmingly likeable — a difficult but necessary balance for Daisy — and Taurean Blacque plays Hoke with an underpinning of sly wisdom. As a black man in the deep South, he knows where he stands with the white folks, but he also knows how to manipulate them when he needs to. (Blacque, who’s best known from his years as Neal Washington on “Hill Street Blues,” is making his second WBTT appearance. He was in last year’s phenomenal production of “The Whipping Man.”) Both Daisy and Hoke age by a quarter-century during the course of the play, and Michel and Blacque indeed seem to age, gradually, before our eyes.

Kraig Swartz has a less extravagant, but just as essential role as Boolie, and his performance is on a par with the marvelous turns by Michel and Blacque.

Uhry’s characters, and the characterizations of Michel and Blacque, are filled with such warmth that you don’t want this production of “Driving Miss Daisy” to end.

Howard Millman’s direction seems unobtrusive, except for some inventive blocking that helps loosen up a play that could feel static.

Uhry’s characters, and the characterizations of Michel and Blacque, are filled with such warmth that you don’t want this production of “Driving Miss Daisy” to end. When it does, you wish you could call Daisy and Hoke and invite them over to your house just to spend some time with them.

Details: Through May 28, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $36; $22 student and active military. 941-366-1505, westcoastblacktheatre.org.

Marty Clear: 941-708-7919, @martinclear

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