Archive for December, 2016

2016 Theatre In Review (Tongue In Cheek Edition) Volume 4

December 31, 2016

 

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Having missed a year due to my caregiving duties and seeing only a handful of plays in 2015, it’s time for another look at my musings on the theatre season just passed. Not a “best of,” just random thoughts and observations. Again, I did not see everything and missed a lot of newer venues due to time and the aforementioned caregiving (which will continue) but there was some great theatre this year and I couldn’t help but put my spin on things.

-Event Of The Year- I know, I just said this wasn’t a “best of,” but the Tennessee Williams Festival was something to behold and a marvelous moveable feast. As I said in my review of the plays I was lucky enough to see, this whole week gave me an eerie feeling. I could feel the presence of the playwright who hated his hometown in all of the productions and the spaces of “The Two Character Play” set in an old theatre that Mr. Williams used to try out some of his original works and “The St. Louis Rooming House Plays” in particular gave me chills. All of the plays and players and everyone involved brought a regal feeling to this Love Fest and became a respectful and insightful slice of life to St. Louis theatre. Thanks to Carrie Houk and all who brought this series of special moments to life.

-“Hanging Around Talking- Women’s Edition”- “Five Women Wearing The Same Dress” at Stray Dog Theatre. These bitchy yet provocative bridesmaids made for some entertaining moments as they opened wounds in their own lives and the lives of those around them.

-“Hanging Around Talking- Men’s Edition”- Yes, I’m going there- Reginald Pierre and Phillip C. Dixon in “Suspended” at Upstream Theatre. Not only did they literally hang around, they brought a lot of thoughtful dialogue to an audience wondering how two guys who couldn’t move around the stage could keep us interested. They did.

-“Those Magic Moments”- A quick look at just a few of the moments that made me pause and say, “now that’s a brilliant piece of stagecraft.” There are so many but here’s a few that immediately come to mind. -Linda Kennedy unabashedly reminiscing about her days as a debutante as Amanda Wingate in Upstream’s “A Glass Menagerie.” -Edward Juvier reprising his role and delighting us with “I Am Rodolpho” in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Stages. -The eerie, symbiotic relationship of Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schweyte in “Cuddles” at SATE. -Rachel Hanks blaring the trumpet in the Ozark inspired “As You Like It” at SATE. -The clash of two titans in “Inherit The Wind” at Insight with two titans of the local stage, Alan Knoll and John Contini. -The surprise filled interpretation of “Trash Macbeth” at ERA. -The stunning and unexpected curtain call/finale of “42nd Street” at the Muny. As I said, just a few of many magical moments on stage this year.

-“One For The Money”- One person shows are a true test of an actors’ resolve- keep us entertained all by yourself. In some cases, you’re playing one character, sometimes you’re playing several over the course of (usually) one-act. Will Bonfiglio filled the bill with his sharp interpretation of a fictitious character placating to Barbra Streisand’s whims in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog. Dael Orlandersmith not only kept us intrigued with several characters created from the Ferguson riots, but she put the show together herself using interviews with those who lived through it all. Her performance was at the Mainstage at the Rep. Another strong female performance was the indomitable Lavonne Byers as she portrayed Golda Meir at New Jewish Theatre’s “Golda’s Balcony.” The true events showed how powerful a female leader can be (U.S voters, I’m talking to you). New Jewish gave us not just one, but two portrayals of strong women as Glynnis Bell delighted with her nervous schoolteacher in “Underneath The Lintel.” And finally, how about the remarkable performance by Sarah Porter in New Line’s presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Tell Me On A Sunday?” She charmed us with her mix of a strong yet waif-like Emma looking for love.

-“Two For The Show”- Some great couples teamed up this year on stage including Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye in the bizarre but fascinating “Cuddles” at SATE.”Gidion’s Knot” at STLAS featured another pair of women as Laurie McConnell and Elizabeth Ann Townsend struggled with the death of a student. The gentlemen got their chance in the aforementioned “Suspended” at Upstream and then Jerry Vogel and Will Bonfiglio dazzled in “Old Wicked Songs” at New Jewish. Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand brought the surreal brother and sister team to life in “The Two Character Play” during the Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival and two musicals joined the fray as Insight brought us “Jon and Jen” and, though technically a few more people on stage, the two main characters of “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” were Michael Baird as Hedwig and Anna Skiddis Vargas as Yitzhak at Stray Dog.

-“Three To Get Ready”- Don’t worry, this is where I stop the numbers game. “American Buffalo” and “Three Tall Women” at STLAS, “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish, Eleemosynary” at Mustard Seed and “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” at the Black Rep all showed how intriguing a play can become when a third character is added to the mix. And speaking of threes, a tip of the hat to Laurie McConnell for tackling three distinct and equally challenging roles on stage this year- the concerned school teacher in “Gidion’s Knot” at STLAS, the flirtatious vamp in “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” at the Black Rep and the outrageous, boozy Joanna in “Company” at Insight Theatre.

-“A New Take On Shakespeare’s Tragic Men”- It’s hard to make classic Shakespearean villains new and fresh but St. Louis Shakespeare managed to bring a new spin to them this year. Charlie Barron made “Richard III” move us to hate and tears with a very moving performance and Ben Ritchie took “Macbeth” to new heights with a very personal look at how the circumstances took him beyond his comfort zone. Bravo to two young actors who took a new approach to these tragic characters.

-“Faded Glory”- Two musicals appeared on the theatre scene this year that showed how youth is fleeting and how old facades emerge from promising beginnings. In “Grey Gardens” at Max & Louie, the real life Bouvier clan (Jackie Kennedy’s family) are shown in their heyday Edith and Edie Beale go from prominence and wealth to living in a hovel that used to be their magnificent mansion in a span of 30-plus years. Then, at The Rep, the return of the classic musical, “Follies” features a group of prominent players reuniting in the old theatre that is about to be torn down that housed their follies-type show. Their younger selves appear to interact bringing  back memories both good and bad and how that has affected their lives today. Two great musicals given outstanding productions.

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-“Tragedy In 2016”- Not only has it been a tough year for celebrity deaths this year, we’ve lost many local actors and other theatre folk during this most tragic year. Two of the losses were felt by a great many on the local scene. Jay V. Hall, the gracious and charming “host” at Stray Dog Theatre always went above and beyond for members of the press and, I believe, for everyone who visited Tower Grove Abbey. Whenever I requested “a” ticket, he always told me he’d save two just in case Gail felt up to attending. One of the sweetest men around. And, although I didn’t know him well, B (Barry) Weller was a wonder on stage. He always made a role his own and brought a fresh insight into every character he played- even to his final role in Chekov’s “Ivanov” at STLAS. I really fell in love with his work during Mustard Seed’s “Jane Eyre.” He took a minor role, did a Nigel Bruce spin on the character and made it a memorable one you couldn’t forget. To these two giants of local theatre and all the others we lost, a sad and final farewell.

Although there is a lot more to cover on the 2016 theatre scene, we’ll leave that to the upcoming St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards in March. I thank you for listening and reminiscing with me and I’ll see you all for the 2017 season.

 

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“American Buffalo” Rips Across The STLAS Stage With Classic Mamet Dialogue

December 9, 2016
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Leo Ramsey, William Roth and Peter Mayer in the STLAS production of “American Buffalo.” Photo: John Lamb

It’s not just the cursing, it’s the lyrical beauty of the realistic language that helped win Mamet the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1977 for “American Buffalo.” As St. Louis Actors’ Studio shows in their latest offering- it hasn’t lost a bit of that gritty, hard hitting dramatic impact. Led by a strong cast and excellent direction, it’s a must see.

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William Roth as Teach drives home a point to Peter Mayer as Donny in “American Buffalo” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Donny Dubrow’s cluttered Resale Shop is the setting as Donny has taken Bobby under his wing and is trying to keep the slow-witted young man on the right track- according to the philosophy of Donny. He’s concerned about his eating habits while Donny munches on junk food himself as he cooks up a scheme to regain an American Buffalo nickel that he feels he sold too cheap to a wealthy coin collector. The plan is to break into the guy’s house and steal all the coins. Joining them in the caper will be Donny’s good friend Walter- known as “Teach.”

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William Roth looks on as Peter Mayer unsuccessfully tries to contact their missing accomplice in “American Buffalo” at STLAS. Photo: John Lamb

Peter Mayer’s Donny is an impatient and hardened by life man who, despite his nefarious ways shows a soft side when it comes to protecting young Bobby. Teach seems to tolerate Bobby while “playing nice,” mostly to appease Donny. He doesn’t like the idea of giving the break in job to Bobby since he’s sure he will screw things up so he insists on bringing in a third party. This leads to bad feelings all the way around which leads to the violent but inevitable closing to “American Buffalo” which leaves us with mixed emotions.

STLAS Artistic Director William Roth handles the role of Teach with mild exasperation prone to bursts of  explosive behavior. He and Mayer play off each other with the skill of dueling surgeons- slicing each other up with the precision of enemies who are closest friends. Leo Ramsey, who we’ve seen on other stages in town, uses this as his break-out performance. He brings a heart-breaking pathos to the role of Bobby that makes you want to cry, cringe and root him on all in the course of this short, two-act drama.

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William Roth and Peter Mayer discuss the heist in Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Photo: John Lamb

Who better to guide us through this gritty Mamet classic than director John Contini? As a skilled actor and director, he manages to squeeze every ounce of passion from this hard boiled script. It’s sometimes hard to watch as the characters almost seem determined to make their lives more miserable than they already are, but it’s a brilliant performance by all three that is made even better by Mr. Contini’s direction.

Helping to add to the power of the production is a beautifully cluttered set by Christie Johnston. Looking like an indoor yard sale- every large, outdated piece and every small trinket tells a story as the floor, walls and ceiling are filled with each odd piece. Dalton Robison’s lights add to the story and Carla Landis Evans has provided the perfect costume design including the gold lame shoes and shirt worn by Teach in the first act.

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William Roth talks to Leo Ramsey as Peter Mayer looks on in the STLAS production of “American Buffalo.” Photo: John Lamb

There’s no denying that David Mamet’s play is still powerful to today’s audiences. And St. Louis Actors’ Studio has given us a definitive production that brings every nuance to the typical Mamet profanity laden dialogue that almost overwhelms as it brings a harsh reality to the story of the seamier side of these low life characters. “American Buffalo” plays at STLAS through December 18th.

Bizarre Barbra Boutiques Baffle, Befuddle And Bewitch In “Buyer And Cellar” At Stray Dog

December 7, 2016
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Will Bonfiglio as Alex More ponders his newly discovered life as Barbra Streisand’s shopkeeper in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

In a tour de force for young local actor Will Bonfiglio, “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre takes a coffee table book penned and photographed by Barbra Streisand and leads us on a fictional romp through her personal mall built in her basement. With the unusual premise written by playwright Jonathan Tolins, you just want this eccentric tale to be true because it is so out there and something you know Babs probably would do.

The premise is that Barbra has built this huge mall in her cellar with little shops such as a doll shop, a boutique that actually contains most of her costumes from her plays and movies and even a snack bar that keeps coming into the script referring to the whirring of a slushy machine and the popping of a popcorn maker. Into this world, Ms. Streisand’s assistant/housekeeper must provide a “caretaker” who keeps everything neat and tidy in all of the shops and just waits for the inevitable “shopping trips” that Barbra will make to the mall.

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A publicity photo shows Will Bonfiglio pondering the Streisand book that inspired “Buyer And Cellar” as presented by Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: Justin Been

A young actor named Alex More- he even announces himself as an actor at the beginning of the play- has applied for and won the job. Mr. Tolins’ script emphasizes that, although the basic fact of the mall is true, his story of this young actor is just his imagination running with the initial premise. Once ensconced in the job, Alex eventually meets The Barbra and she eventually opens up to him and even dickers on the price he must come up with in his head for a mechanical doll. If these exchanges he has with Streisand in the cellar mall were true, it would seriously question her sanity and be a delightful, eccentric side that one would probably not expect from a star of her magnitude. That’s why I say, please let it be true!

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Will Bonfiglio as Alex More ponders his fate in Barbra Streisand’s basement in Stray Dog Theatre’s “Buyer And Cellar.” Photo: John Lamb

This 100 minute one man show is truly a unique work of art as fashioned by Will Bonfiglio and director Gary F. Bell. We know Will from his wide range of roles on local stages and is admired as one of the best young actors we have today. But this performance takes him to another level. As young Alex, he announces early that he will not be doing a Barbra Streisand impersonation but he truly does come across clearly with her mannerisms and a certain voice rhythm that clearly speaks to Barbra. We even meet James Brolin at one point in the proceedings.

What he really has down perfectly is precise timing. His comic timing is flawless but he has studied this script and character so well that every pause, every movement, every nuance is money. There’s a boatload of laughs in this long one-act and Mr. Bonfiglio nails each and every one. In fact, with timing like this, he might consider a side gig at some of the comedy clubs in town.

Robert J. Lippert’s sparse but effective set suits the play well and is enhanced by the lighting design of Tyler Duenow. Director Gary Bell has brilliantly given the play the necessary ebb and flow and where to play for laughs and pathos, but Will Bonfiglio has really made “Buyer And Cellar” his own. It’s one of those performances that you will be talking about for years to come.

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Hands on hips, Will Bonfiglio as Alex More wonders what he got himself into in “Buyer And Cellar” at Stray Dog Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

And what better time than this start of the holiday season to enjoy an evening of laughs and the most bizarre story you’re ever likely to encounter? “Buyer And Cellar” plays at Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey through December 17th- they’ve even added a special matinee on that closing day at 2:00 PM. Give them a call at 314-865-1995 for tickets or more information.

Lose Yourself In The Holiday Season As “A Christmas Carol” Returns To The Rep

December 6, 2016
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Scrooge makes an invisible appearance at the Fezziwig Christmas past in the Rep’s production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

In what seems like a newer, streamlined version, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings “A Christmas Carol” to their stage for the first time in 35 years. In honor of their 50th producing season, a highly entertaining version of the classic story brings a very local feel to the festivities.

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Jerry Vogel as the leafy and highly decorated Ghost of Christmas Present guides John Rensenhouse as Scrooge through what could be in “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

John Rensenhouse, although not a local actor, seems right at home as he’s performed in many productions here over the years. His Scrooge is what you would call definitive. The mean spirited side is in full court press as he grouses at Bob Cratchit’s laziness and the foolhardiness of his nephew Fred along with slings and arrows for anyone or anything about him that reminds him of the holiday season. It is, after all, just another working day in his mind. Then, after the infamous visits from his old partner and the three ghosts, his joy is unbounded. It’s a delightful performance filled with humor and pathos.

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Michael James Reed and Amy Loui and the rest of the Cratchit family raise a glass as John Rensenhouse as Scrooge watches on in “A Christmas Carol” at the Rep. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Although the other versions of “A Christmas Carol” only played a three year span in the early 80’s, this 50th season version is tied together by the sublime appearance once again of Joneal Joplin as Scrooge’s late partner Jacob Marley. His ghostly visage enhanced those productions and now he appears for his 100th performance on the Rep stage. What a legacy and what an actor. His booming voice and grim announcement to Scrooge is a highlight of this production which is wonderful from start to finish.

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John Rensenhouse as Scrooge in uncontrollably ecstatic while Ben Nordstrom as Fred looks on in horror in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Michael James Reed and Amy Loui play the downtrodden yet ever optimistic Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit. Mr. Reed’s almost apologetic demeanor changes to one of delight and pleasure as Scrooge invisibly visits his family on his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present. And that ghost is the magnificent Jerry Vogel who has a rather dramatic entrance and drives his part of the message to Scrooge home with power and wit. He also doubles as Mr. Fezziwig in the Christmas Past segment.

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Susie Wall as Mrs. Fezziwig enjoys the attention of two young men during the Christmas Past section of “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is given a great portrayal by Jacqueline Thompson. She shows Scrooge as a young man (Landon Tate Boyle) when he still had that spirit of the season infused in his soul  before it was turned sour by the advice he got to grab, cheat and steal if needed to amass his fortune. At the home of the annual Christmas bash, the Fezziwigs, he dances and falls in love- which soon dissolves as well as there is no time for love when there’s money to be made. Susie Wall is delightful during this scene as Mrs. Fezziwig and then makes her mark again with a great comic portrayal of Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber.

The versatile Ben Nordstrom is nothing short of brilliant as nephew Fred. He even gets a big hand as he demonstrates some party games at the current day Fezziwig soiree. Landon Tate Boyle reappears as the scary, highly effective Ghost of Christmas Future which cements the deal for Scrooge and turns him back into a jolly old soul. Rounding out the major cast is Owen Hanford as a wonderful Tiny Tim. The ensemble is entirely made up of local actors and this is what makes this production so enticing. This seeming shorter script gets right to the point and this large group of actors- young and old- make the whole production sparkle like new fallen snow.

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Joneal Joplin, performing in his 100th production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis makes an appearance as Jacob Marley to a frightened John Rensenhouse as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Helping matters progress with pomp and flash is the superb technical crew. Robert Mark Morgan’s elevated backdrop and smooth scene changes are a delight to behold. Quietly impressive and enhanced by the stunning light design of Rob Denton. Dorothy Marshall Englis has designed a glamorous array of costumes and Rusty Wandall’s sound design is joyous. Jeffrey Carter has arranged the music and directed the chorus while Ellen Isom has provided appropriate choreography for this large cast. The special effects are a great boon to the production as well and the credit goes to On The FLY Productions LLC.

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Jacqueline Thompson as the Ghost Of Christmas Past starts Scrooge on his journey in “A Christmas Carol” at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The main man behind this intrepid 5oth anniversary production is the current and longest running Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Steven Woolf. He has directed a stunning and memorable production that will guide us through this somewhat tough holiday season and hopefully give us renewed energy for the new year. There’s no “Bah, Humbug!” with this show- it’s a beautiful tribute to the Rep and the season.

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Tiny Tim (Owen Hanford) is hoisted on the shoulders of Scrooge (John Rensenhouse) in the Rep production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

“A Christmas Carol” runs on the Mainstage of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through Christmas Eve, December 24th. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

“Driving Miss Daisy” Still Touches The Heart As New Jewish Theatre Continues Season

December 2, 2016
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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy tries to listen in as Eric Dean White as Boolie and J. Samuel Davis as Hoke have a discussion in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Spanning 25 years and a lot of emotion, Alfred Uhry’s heart-wrenching story “Driving Miss Daisy,” still delivers the goods. At New Jewish Theatre, we’re in for a treat as Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer trods the boards once again in the title role.

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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy does her best back seat driving as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke listens in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Proving she’s still got it, Kathleen Sitzer gives a moving portrayal as Daisy Werthan. As the play opens in 1948, she’s 72 years old and recovering stubbornly from an automobile accident with the old Packard. Her son, Boolie, insists she get a driver because the insurance company will no longer allow her to drive. She adamantly refuses but Boolie hires a black driver named Hoke Coleburn who spends most of his first week on the job sitting in the kitchen while Daisy takes the streetcar everywhere she needs to go.

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Hoke listens respectfully as Daisy does her best to lay down some ground rules in the NJT production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eventually giving in- with reservations and a list of rules for behavior- she allows Hoke to drive her to the temple and to the Piggly-Wiggly as long as he stays with the car and doesn’t try to help her (although she allows him to bring the groceries into the house). What starts off as a begrudging and suspicious relationship for Daisy eventually blossoms into a life-long friendship that leads to a touching finale in this 90 minute one-act.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke is interviewed by Eric Dean White as Boolie in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Two local, great gentleman actors make the most of their roles, making the characters sympathetic and understanding without too much of the schmaltz that can often ruin this gentle, nurturing play about crossing boundaries of understanding and trust. J. Samuel Davis is absolutely brilliant as the gentle natured Hoke. With quiet exasperation, he kindly leads Daisy along to an acceptance of both her circumstances and his intrusion on her privacy. It’s a low key yet animated performance that is probably the most realistic portrayal of Hoke I’ve seen that matches both the manners and mores of the time period while showing his wise grasp of humanity.

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Eric Dean White as Boolie listens as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tells him about a turn in Miss Daisy’s health in “Driving Miss Daisy” at NJT. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eric Dean White is a powerful force in Daisy’s life as son Boolie. He lets her keep her independence while still maintaining a presence in her life and trying to protect her without hovering. He and Hoke also share a bond as they protect this grand lady (who turns 97 by play’s end). But the tear-jerking finale shows what progress can be made that leads to a very special friendship between Daisy and Hoke that you realize is very rare indeed.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga plays on the sympathy and tenderness that Mr. Uhry has fashioned in “Driving Miss Daisy” but avoids the sloppy sentimentality that can turn it saccharine. It’s a lovely piece that brings a real tear to the eye. The set design of Dunsai Dai is a perfectly place two level set that features Daisy’s parlor upstage along with Boolie’s office off to stage right. The lower level features the mock up of Daisy’s new Oldsmobile symbolized by a front and back seat, steering wheel mechanism and two large “headlights.” It’s simple, unobtrusive and effective. Add the pinpoint lighting design of Mark Wilson and the whole play unfolds with little delay between scene and time changes.

The costumes of Michele Friedman Siler are on the mark and the fascinating sound design by Zoe Sullivan fits right into the historical perspective of the play. A shout out to Nancy Bell as well as the dialect coach who keeps them all on the Southern  drawl of the Atlanta gentry over the decades.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tries to calm down Kathleen Sitzer’s Daisy in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

“Driving Miss Daisy” gets a lot of stage time in our town. As a matter of fact, my old group- Hawthorne Players- just staged it within the last couple of months. But it’s a beautiful and near-perfect play so I guess we can’t really get too much of it. Enjoy this exquisite version at New Jewish Theatre through December 18th. Contact NJT at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.