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Center Stage

Old folks and fresh tension

1/20/2016

For an actor like Tyrees Allen, the voice is an orchestra. Playing Hoke, the man who does the driving, he supplies the latest Repertory Theater of Iowa (RTI) production with a soundtrack so rich that it’s hard to believe there are never more than three people on stage. When Allen grumbles that he can’t understand “white folks,” he has the audience leaning in. When he hoots at finding himself on the same wavelength as the white and aged Miss Daisy, we rock back, laughing.

“Driving Miss Daisy.” Repertory Theater of Iowa, Kum & Go. www.rtiowa.com. Wednesday - Saturday Jan. 20 - 23, 7:30 p.m. Saturday - Sunday Jan. 23 - 24, 2 p.m.

“Driving Miss Daisy.” Repertory Theater of Iowa, Kum & Go. www.rtiowa.com. Wednesday – Saturday Jan. 20 – 23, 7:30 p.m. Saturday – Sunday Jan. 23 – 24, 2 p.m.

Hoke was the Morgan Freeman role in the quadruple-Oscar movie, and Allen, too, does a lot of Hollywood work. You can see him fighting the bad guys in “Robocop” or “Alias,” playing one himself. Yet he came out of small-town Kansas, where he did community theater with Kim Grimaldi. Now a top-shelf local actress, Grimaldi has kept up with her old friend, and it’s their mutual respect that brought Allen back to the Midwest for “Daisy.”

As the title character, Grimaldi generally gets less to play with than her driver. Hoke, from the outset, has few reins on his emotions, while Miss Daisy is buttoned up (literally, in high-collar dresses from costumer Emily Ganfield). One of the pleasures of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-winning script, in fact, is how it reveals what’s left her so prim.

Daisy Werthen, we learn, isn’t just well-off but also Jewish, and growing up in conservative Atlanta early last century, she knew poverty and ostracism. So we first see Grimaldi stiff-backed, her chin cutting this way and that. Even when she begins warming to Hoke, she’s waving garden clippers in his face. Daisy’s forever frightened of letting down her guard, and so the comedy between her and her driver has an edge the movie lacked.

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Director Matt McIver understands that, and his handling generates remarkable tension. The show takes off from Daisy’s angry opener: “No, no, no, no!” The lighting shifts expertly as we rush from scene to scene, now at one end of Jay Jaglim’s open set, and now at the other.

Wherever Grimaldi turns up, she’s wound impressively tight, unlike her boozy adulterer in “Virginia Woolf,” the role that won the Cloris last year. In “Daisy,” even when the actress softens, it’s all in the eyes and cheeks. Allen, by contrast, is so full of gestures that his hat almost functions like another character.

As for the actual third character — Mark Gruber as Daisy’s banker son — he understands his limits as the straight man. He balances family warmth, which eventually embraces Hoke as well, with a cool head. In a chilling late scene, he sits down with his mother to explain that, in Atlanta, a businessman mustn’t seem too sympathetic with Martin Luther King. At that moment, both stiffen up visibly, and as for Allen’s verbal music, that’s gone. For a moment there, “Daisy” makes us suffer afresh the silence and suffocation of racism.

Overheard in the Lobby: Pyramid, the city’s new African-American theater company, will announce its first season this Saturday. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

One Comment

  1. Thank you John for always thoughtful commentary. Finally got to see the show myself last night…it’s just beautiful. You’re a champ for theater and it’s always appreciated.

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