By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sometimes the sweet nobility of a heartfelt community theater production can make its flaws forgivable. At all-volunteer playhouses such as Richardson Theatre Centre and Onstage in Bedford, where this week's shows were reviewed, they do it all for love. Nobody receives star treatment. There's no complicated scenery, and they sport a grab-bag of thrift store costumes that may or may not fit the wearers.
But even on a gloomy winter night when the house doesn't have a full row in it and even some of those patrons slip away at intermission, these actors, bless their hearts, give it their all. This is theater at its barest bones-est, but, for these two shows anyway, it is theater that offers to an audience something that's completely honest and satisfying: good storytelling.
In the Richardson production of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy and in Bedford's staging of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, the acting isn't always the most subtle, and the directing of both shows lacks imagination. And yet there's a big rush of that old theatrical magic that happens as the casts relax into their roles and bring to life the nostalgic, funny stories of two not-so-different American Jewish families.
Driving Miss Daisy continues through February 21 at Richardson Theatre Centre. Call 972-699-1130.
Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through February 14 at Onstage in Bedford. Call 817-354-6444.
The Uhry play, in case you've forgotten, is about a cranky Jewish widow in Atlanta and the black chauffeur her social-climbing son hires to drive her to the Piggly-Wiggly. Daisy Worthan is a feisty 72 when the play begins and is somewhere in her 90s and only a shade less feisty when it ends. Widower Hoke, the chauffeur, is up in years too. They grow old together in the two-act play, which unfolds like a classic (if unlikely) romance.
The success of any production of this gentle comedy depends upon the chemistry among its three characters, and Richardson Theatre Centre has lucked out with director Rachael Lindley's casting of Juli Erickson as Miss Daisy, F. Carl Brown as Hoke and Don Long as Daisy's son Boolie. Brown has played Hoke at other theaters, most recently at Artisan, the cut-rate community stage in Hurst. He's a little young-looking to play a septuagenarian, but he has a solid grasp of the character as he works his way into the particular rhythms and silhouette of a strong elderly gent. He's sharp with the timing of the funny comebacks to Miss Daisy's incessant needling.
Erickson, still shaky on some of her lines on opening weekend, plays Miss Daisy with more anger than staunch pride in the early parts, but she lets the character's mischievous old-lady twinkle take hold in the second act. Her Daisy and Brown's Hoke are at their best in the ice storm scene. Neighborhood power lines are down and streets glazed over, but stalwart Hoke makes it to work as usual, bringing Miss Daisy a hot cup of 7-Eleven coffee. They sit as friends, comfortable together and both feeling safer in the other's presence. It's an important turning point in the play.
Don Long as Boolie is the best actor of the three, serving as the emotional Velcro that holds the playwright's flimsy transitions together. He smoothly underplays a speech where Boolie explains to his mother why he can't be seen going with her to a dinner honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Miss Daisy's friendship with Hoke has opened her eyes to certain injustices toward minorities, like the fact that her driver can't use the whites-only men's rooms at roadside gas stations in the pre-desegregation South. What a blow it is to discover that her son is willing to play the good ol' boys' bigotry game to get ahead in business.
Richardson's Driving Miss Daisy doesn't come close to the nearly perfect staging One-Thirty Productions did last year at the Bath House Cultural Center. But for the warm connections among its actors and the play's always relevant messages of love, loyalty and acceptance, if you haven't seen this one in a while, there should be enough here to drive you there.
Neil Simon put a lot of himself into Eugene Morris Jerome, the 15-year-old narrator of the semi-autobiographical comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs, first in the playwright's much-lauded "Eugene Trilogy." The speech cadence of a quick-witted teenage boy from a Brooklyn Jewish family in 1937 is typed into every syllable. "The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife," says Eugene, turning to the audience from the dining table, "which is more than I could say for the liver."
Considering that Onstage in Bedford's cast of seven (directed by Shane Peterman) is more ham on Wonder Bread than pastrami on rye—no, really, they look and sound like Minnesota Lutherans trying to play Jews—they are doing some fine ensemble work. Playing Eugene is lanky 15-year-old Cayman Mitchell, who's getting better with every role (we first liked him in Circle Theatre's A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant in 2008). He's not copycatting Matthew Broderick, as so many Eugenes do, and he's hilariously earnest as he begs Stan, Eugene's worldlier, older brother (played with touching vulnerability by Scott Higgins) for sex education. (Mitchell has a sure hand with comedy, but someone should have shown the kid how to throw a baseball for the opening speech.)
In the run-up to the Second World War, things are tough in the Jerome home. A young widowed aunt (Kris D. Walters) and her two nubile teenage daughters (Jenny Tityrin, Alex Altshuler) have moved in, setting off Eugene's sudden burst of puberty. Eugene's mother, Kate (Susan Doke), frets about feeding a family of seven on the meager earnings of her Willy Loman-esque husband Jack (Ken Orman). And they're all worried about the Jewish relatives in Poland who are trying to get to America before it's too late. If they make it safely to Brooklyn, where will they all sleep?
The nearly irresistible charm of this play lies in Simon's choice to reflect the bigger issues of the era—poverty, anti-Semitism and anti-Irish bias, women's limited opportunities for careers—by focusing on the humdrum details of daily life in a working-class Jewish household. Kate buys food on a need-only basis, sending Jerome to Greenblatt's grocery more times a day than he'd like. When he grows up, he tells the audience, all he'll be trained for "is going to the store."
The men in this cast click well enough to pass as real father and sons. Orman telegraphs the physical weariness of a still-young man strained by two low-paying jobs and a lot of dependents. Imagine William H. Macy playing a Jewish dad, with a touch of a Fargo accent, and you've got Orman's Jack. Somehow he makes it work. His scenes with the boys are tender gems.
Brighton Beach Memoirs was famously a bust in its recent big-budget shot at a Broadway revival. It lasted exactly one performance. Maybe that's what makes the little production in Bedford feel like a mitzvah. On next to no dough, they're doing it just fine, getting every laugh Simon intended. They may be the most goyishe cast who've ever played the Jeromes of Brooklyn, but mazel tov to them anyway.