Alfred Uhry

Driving Miss Daisy at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Community theatre completists owe Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage a debt of gratitude. This October they are presenting the first play in Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Driving Miss Daisy. Three years ago Haddonfield Plays and Players staged the second and third parts of the series: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, respectively. I wondered when a company would provide South Jersey’s theatrical talent the opportunity to perform in one that opened it. The wait ended this October 4th at Burlington County Footlighters. Your correspondent attended that performance.

Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively complex show to bring to the stage. It’s quite the antithesis to Parade. The latter featured an extensive cast, a high-tech spectacle and a catalog of musical numbers. Driving Miss Daisy contained no musical numbers, a sparse set and only three actors. The playwright, however, included 27 scene changes. The show did not contain an intermission, either. These unique challenges didn’t deter the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Director Alice Weber has a history of directing high minded, cerebral works such as Dr. Cook’s Garden (at Bridge Players Theatre) and Coyote on a Fence (also at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage). Mr. Uhry’s exploration of race, poverty and hate crimes is still relevant today. Even with this disturbing background, the playwright infused his script with a belief in the redemptive power of humanity. I didn’t leave the theatre asking myself deep philosophical questions like I usually do after an Alice Weber show.

I asked Ms. Weber why she chose to direct Driving Miss Daisy. She replied that, in addition to liking the play, she believed it would work very well in the intimate setting the 2nd Stage provided.

For those unfamiliar with Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage, the room’s seating capacity is about 30 people. While some companies employ the theatre in the round format, the 2nd Stage uses a theatre in a semi-circle approach. The chairs are arranged in an arc consisting of two rows in front of the stage. This set-up allows the audience to watch just a few feet from the action.

Ms. Weber’s assessment proved correct. Performers Phyllis Josephson, Rick Williams and John Weber worked this close setting wonderfully.

Phyllis Josephson celebrated her birthday this October 1st. Ms. Josephson gave the audience a gift through her performance as Daisy Werthan.

In 2015 Ms. Josephson played the lead role in David Lindsey-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo; a show also presented by Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. In that production, Ms. Josephson convincingly acted the role of a teenager. For Driving Miss Daisy, she portrayed a bitter old woman with just as much realism.

Ms. Josephson executed every facet of the role to perfection. Her expressions captured the character’s inner thoughts, she maintained the accent of a Southern belle, and she showed the protagonist’s change with extraordinary skill. Ms. Josephson combined all three dazzlingly in the scene when she told her son about a missing can of sardines.

Real life anchorman Rick Williams proved he’s just as adept at making news as he is at reporting it. Mr. Williams delivered an outstanding interpretation of Hoke Coleburn.

Mr. Williams chose a very realistic accent for his character. His delivery complimented it. Both enhanced his comic timing. When asking Boolie (played by John Weber) for a raise, his cheery vocal inflection made the scene even wittier. The final line about it “feeling mighty good” to have two employers compete for his services had much more impact.

Mr. Williams’ mannerisms were among the best I’ve witnessed at a live performance. He deserves special credit for his slouching and squinting while behind the wheel. The large glasses he wore added comedic effect. His slower ambling and walking with a cane in the later scenes both appeared lifelike.

Ms. Josephson and Mr. Williams put on an acting clinic. They played the show’s dramatic scenes with the passion and poignancy the script demanded. Their portrayals during the ones where Miss Daisy taught Hoke to read, their reactions to the temple bombing and the pair’s trip to Alabama were spectacular.

Both actors clearly devoted a lot of time to preparing for this show. During the talk back session following the performance, Mr. Williams thanked his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams for her assistance when he rehearsed the role. As well as he portrayed Hoke, audiences should thank Ms. Mitchell-Williams, too.

John Weber played a terrific supporting role as Boolie Werthan. Mr. Weber served as an excellent straight man during his comedic scenes with Mr. Williams. He also captured the latent humor in Mr. Uhry’s dialog when interacting with Ms. Josephson.

Jim Frazer again treated audiences to his genius for set design. For Driving Miss Daisy, he somehow developed a way to position a portion of a car on the stage. I recalled the car he placed on the set of Footlighters’ 2015 production of Bonnie and Clyde. That vehicle entered and retracted from the center of the company’s much larger main stage. The car for Driving Miss Daisy set upon a rotating platform in the center of a small room. The headlights and gear shift even worked. Mr. Frazer continues to push the envelope for set design with every show he does.

The remainder of the production team included: Shelly Tibbets (Assistant Director), Lindsey Kilchesty (Stage Manager), Angel Ezell (Light and Sound) and Pat Frazer (Gloryboard Design).

Theatre fans will have limited opportunities to witness this masterpiece. The show runs through October 12th at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. Opening weekend sold out. Fans should purchase their tickets for next week ASAP.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans are also reminded that Alice Weber likes to direct thought provoking shows. Theatre aficionados who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this run of Driving Miss Daisy could very well end up the subjects of her next project.

Theatre Review – Parade at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I have some “real big news” for both fans of “pretty music” as well as those who prefer “a rumblin’ and a rollin’” in their seats. Haddonfield Plays and Players are putting on an outstanding production of the musical Parade. I experienced the pleasure of witnessing the show firsthand at the premiere on October 20, 2016. Director Pat De Fusco understood one person couldn’t “do it alone.” The cast and crew earned their share of “the glory” for this remarkable performance. Many times “it’s hard to speak my heart.” So I hope readers will forgive me for “all the wasted time” I spent on this “prelude.” I would point out that the substantive parts of this review are “not over yet”; and there’s a lot of substance to this one.  So “what am I waiting for?”

Parade (book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by James Robert Brown) told a disturbing tale for a musical. The action commenced on Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913. With the backdrop of a parade commemorating this Georgia holiday, authorities discovered the body of a 13 year-old factory worker named Mary Phagan (Played by Alexa Reeves) in the basement of the building she worked. In order to advance his political career, Georgia Governor Slaton (played by Michael Doheny) pressured District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (played by Michael Lovell) to quickly convict someone of the crime. He opted to frame a Jewish migrant from Brooklyn, Leo Frank (played by Andrew Jarema).

Mr. Jarema’s role reminded me of a character from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. With his big spectacles, clean-cut looks and straight hair he looked the part of an average man drawn into a bizarre happening through forces beyond his control. He showed great range in his performance, as well. When police asked his character to identify Mary’s body he became squeamish and anxious. During an enactment of (false) court room testimony, Mr. Jarema did a superb job transforming from a timid man wrongly accused into a predatory lothario. I enjoyed his spirited performance in the later incarnation during the jazzy “Come Up to My Office” number. He also demonstrated tenderness singing the “This is Not Over Yet” ballad accompanied by Lucille Frank (played by Arielle Egan). I have to applaud this performer for transitioning his character into a courageous and even heroic figure by the end of the show.

Arielle Egan played an outstanding supportive wife in the role of Mrs. Frank. Mr. Jarema’s character didn’t make it easy for her. In spite of his taking his anger and frustration out on her, sometimes in rather shrill tones, she conveyed both her anxiety and devotion to him. I found her renditions of “You Don’t Know This Man” and “All the Wasted Time” very moving.

I also liked the way she adjusted her character’s personality throughout the show. While visiting her husband in prison she expressed a desire to leave town during his trial. Like her counterpart’s, her character became more audacious throughout the performance. Later in the show her character approached the governor at a private party and asked him to re-open her husband’s case. Her animation of Mrs. Frank made this change credible.

The best moment in the show occurred with Darryl Thomson, Jr.’s soulful performance on “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.” With the chain gang serving as a chorus and the image of the scorching sun over the Georgia landscape in the background, he sang the blues in a way that would’ve made Robert Johnson jealous. I enjoyed the song so much it gave me the blues because it ended too soon.

I also appreciated Taylor Brody’s portrayal of cynical reporter Britt Craig. His dark suit along with the tie hanging loosely under his unbuttoned top button looked the part of a beat reporter in search of a scoop. So did his taking notes while attending Ms. Phagan’s funeral. The rendition of “Real Big News” really captured his character’s essence. Visuals of newspaper headlines projected against the background enhanced the atmosphere on this tune, as well.

I applaud Michael Arigot for his very emotional portrayal of Frankie Epps. He began by playing a carefree teenager courting Mary Phagan. Following her death he delivered heartbreaking singing during “The Funeral Sequence.” I found that portion of the show very poignant. Following that, he compellingly played a man consumed with rage and obsessed with the need for vengeance.

Parade featured a veritable high tech extravaganza. A projector flashed images on the rear wall during several crucial scenes. A pre-recorded soundtrack played in the background for the musical numbers. Several times the harmony played so loud it drowned out the singers’ voices. Towards the end of the show the music cut out several times. With a show this complex these things happen. None of the performers let the distractions affect their performances. They remained focused until the sound crew addressed the issues. That’s a credit to everyone’s professionalism.

I also want to credit Michael Lovell (as DA Hugh Dorsey) and William H. Young (as Riley) for the interrogation. If I may borrow a line from Hamilton, these gentlemen made me feel like I was “in the room where it happens.” The questioning occurred the same way I would’ve imagined a politically ambitious DA grilling an African-American witness in the Deep South during the early twentieth century. Mr. Lovell delivered threats with veiled hostility. Mr. Young prayed and trembled while listening. The proficiency of these two performers made this scene uncomfortably realistic.

My “verdict” on Haddonfield Plays and Players production is that this show was phenomenal. If someone tells you I made different comments regarding Parade, tell that person, “‘That’s what he said.’ ’You don’t know this man.’”

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” though. “It don’t make sense” that the show’s “finale” will take place just a few short weeks away on November 5th. The performance deserves a longer run. Where’s the “hammer of justice” here? Visit Haddonfield Plays and Players before Parade passes by. That’s my “closing statement.”

Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last Night of Ballyhoo developed into the most multifaceted story I’ve ever watched unfold on a live stage. The drama fused the premiere of the Gone with the Wind in 1939, with a quasi-love triangle involving two cousins, coupled with a prevalence of latent anti-Semitism among Southern Jewish society. The incipient phases of the Second World War along with a cotillion that glitterati from all over the South would be in Atlanta to attend served as the backdrop. To exacerbate the complexity, the humorous dialog during the opening scenes convinced me I misread the synopsis. The play began as a comedy! There’s only one word to describe a show like this: awesome.

This Tony Award Winning Alfred Uhry play may sound like a mind-twisting intellectual exercise. The written version of it may well be just that. However, the performers at Haddonfield Plays and Players brought the text to life in a way that made the story easy to follow. I had the pleasure of attending the Opening Night performance of this Mark Karcher directed presentation on February 19th.

Jessica Braynor delivered an outstanding performance as Lala Levy. Ms. Braynor vividly expressed the mannerisms and bubbly Southern accent of an effervescent young woman struggling to assimilate into high society. Her character’s social awkwardness provided a good portion of the humor in this show. She also transitioned into a tragic figure as her mother, played by Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, pushed—well, make that shoved– her daughter to become part of the de facto Southern aristocracy.

Alex Levitt played an exceptional Joe Farkas; the surprising hero of the story. Mr. Levitt showed great range in his performance, as well. He became anxious and fidgety in response to Lala’s advances. In the scene where he first encountered Sunny Freitag (played by Marnie Kanarek) he exhibited coyness and tenderness. I applaud his ability to do so proficiently while speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent.

The stand out moment of this performance (rightly) occurred during the climax. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will mention that it consisted of an argument between Mr. Levitt and Ms. Kanarek. For the only time in the show Mr. Levitt’s character lost his temper. Ms. Kanarek displayed indignation at being screamed at while at the same time her character didn’t understand what she did wrong. That’s a tough scene to play and a difficult one for an audience to watch. The two executed this challenge brilliantly.

For a serious show, Last Night of Ballyhoo did contain a lot of humorous dialog. I liked the interplay between Tami Gordon Brody (in the role of Reba Freitag) and Lauren Fabbri-Picerno (as Boo Levy). I’m not sure if the playwright intended the line to be comical, but I found Ms. Fabbri-Picerno’s observation that there shouldn’t be a star on the family’s Christmas Tree because “we’re Jewish” quite amusing.

I’m preferential to laid-back, deadpan wit. Plenty of it occurred in this show. Michael Lovell (as Adolph Freitag) delivered some droll thoughts on marriage. While dozing in his chair with a newspaper over his face, he added some snoring at unusual times during the show.

Alex Young’s character (Preachy Weil) showed why he didn’t have a reputation for honesty. He followed up many of his fabulist declarations, with the expression, “What do you think?” The long, drawn out Southern drawl he used made his delivery more memorable.

In terms of Alfred Uhry’s play itself, I did have some minor issues with it. The story began with a lot of humor, especially around Lala’s quest to get a date for Ballyhoo. When I watched the performance I thought the playwright’s transition to tragedy too abrupt. The more I reflected, I realized a lot of foreshadowing occurred prior to that happening. For those who haven’t seen the show, I won’t provide a detailed explanation. I’d just suggest paying close attention.

I’ve also read that there’s controversy over the Last Night of Ballyhoo’s conclusion. While watching that portion of the performance, I had some questions about it, myself. To be fair to Mr. Uhry, many great dramas have recondite endings. I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other. How an artist prefers to close his/her work is always at that person’s discretion. I’d suggest theater fans attend the show and draw their own conclusions, no pun intended.

I have to express my admiration for the show’s cast. They managed to play multi-dimensional characters in a dramedy very convincingly. The thought provoking nature of the subject matter got me thinking after the show. While watching it I experienced an enjoyable evening of quality entertainment. I’d prefer attending the Haddonfield Plays and Players performance of Last Night of Ballyhoo to going to the premiere of Gone with the Wind or being present at the real Ballyhoo any evening.