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Great Expectations: Driving Miss Daisy succeeds at Tower Theatre 

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It's only the second performance by the cast of Driving Miss Daisy, but it seems like the 100th. Cast members Michael Learned, Willis Burks II and Dirk Blocker are seasoned acting veterans and it shows. As the show ends and the lights on the stage go out, the nearly full theater for Sunday's matinee performance is immediately on its feet and the applause echoes off the walls of the Tower Theatre. The three actors take their bows and exit stage left. With several local theater companies in Bend putting out quality productions on a regular basis, the cast of Driving Miss Daisy had some high standards to live up to. After all, this wasn't a community theater performance where you expect a few mistakes here and there. These were professional actors and the audience wanted a production akin to those in New York, Los Angeles or, at the very least, Portland and Seattle. Thankfully, this play lived up to all the expectations.

As Alfred Uhry's first non-musical, Driving Miss Daisy quickly became a smash hit shortly after it debuted as an off-Broadway play in New York City in 1987. The play is set in Atlanta, begins in 1948 and ends in 1974. Over this 26-year period crammed into two hours, the audience witnesses the budding friendship and mutual understanding that develops between the aging Jewish Georgia widow Daisy and Hoke, the African-American chauffer her son hires to drive her. What makes this play successful is its sincerity, honesty and the fact that it deals with issues that affect people of all ages. Directors Brad Hills and Chris Rennold's production succeeds because of the tangible performances given by all three actors and the use of a Spartan set which forces the audience to focus solely on the actors.

Learned shines as the title character. The four-time Emmy award-winning actress best known for her role as Olivia Walton on long-running television show The Waltons (for the younger generation, she also guest starred on Scrubs last year) perfectly captures Daisy's stubborn and opinionated persona. With her dainty Southern accent, Learned makes audiences quickly fall in love with Daisy Werthan, even if she is the mother-in-law from hell.

With his thick Southern drawl, big smile and well-timed comebacks, Hoke Colburn becomes everyone's favorite character from the moment he compares working with the "spirited" Miss Daisy to dealing with a stubborn hog. While audience members lacking authentic Southern relatives may have had a hard time understanding some of what Burks says, he's so believable as Hoke that no one seems to mind.

Blocker, who plays Boolie Wethan, looks remarkably like his father Dan Blocker who played Hoss on Bonanza. Blocker as Boolie is the perfect doting Southern mama's boy. While his role seems more of a comic relief for the most part, Blocker is both convincing and funny.

The interactions between Learned and Burks are what make this play worth seeing. The two are fascinating from their first meeting to their last scene. The dialogue never seems contrived, the emotions are realistic and the comedic timing between the two is perfection.

Set designer Gary Lee Reed creates the perfect way to showcase the acting talent with his bare-bones set that consists mainly of two walls that represent Daisy's living room and Boolie's office and two stools in the middle of the stage that represent the car. Lighting designer Jim Ricks-White helps give depth to the set by lighting each section differently. Boolie's office is lit as if the sun is shining in through slatted window blinds. Miss Daisy's living room receives light through a window with a large tree in front of it that makes branch shadows on the wall behind the sofa.

Another interesting aspect of this production was the use of period photographs and music shown during the scene breaks. Images of Martin Luther King, Atlanta neighborhoods and historical events like presidential elections and the Vietnam War flash across the screen while music by Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles (to name a few) resonates in the background. Not only does this work to show the progression of years in the play, it also makes the scene breaks pass seamlessly.

While most may think of Driving Miss Daisy as the 1989 film starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, it's nice to see Uhry's script shown the way it was originally intended. This is the sort of play that you walk away from feeling like you've seen something meaningful. With great acting, direction and crew, this is one play that's worth checking out - even if you've already seen the movie.

Driving Miss Daisy
Remaining shows include September 25-27 and October 1-5. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St. 317-0700. Visit towertheatre.org for tickets.

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