By Gail McCarthy
---- — Lindsay Crouse, the consummate actress, and Johnny Lee Davenport, whose voice commands the audience’s attention, will star in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” which opens tonight at Gloucester Stage Company, closing out the theater group’s season.
This story, set in the era of the Civil Rights movements, contains both comedy and drama. The central focus is the developing friendship between an elderly widow, a retired sixth-grade teacher in Atlanta, and her newly hired black driver. After she has a car accident, her son arranges for her to have a driver, much to her chagrin.
Georgia playwright Alfred Uhry is the only playwright ever to win the “Triple Crown” for his writing, having captured an Oscar, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize. This play is the first of the playwright’s “Atlanta Trilogy.” In addition to the stage version, the film version of “Driving Miss Daisy” won an Academy Award and the film itself was voted Best Picture of the Year. Uhry’s second play in the trilogy, “Last Night of Ballyhoo,” commissioned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, opened on Broadway in February 1997, and won the Tony Award.
Davenport became an instant favorite locally when he made his Gloucester Stage debut last year in the Independent Reviewers of New England award-winning production of “Master Harold … and the Boys.”
Born in 1950, Davenport is no stranger to life as a black American more than a half a century ago. He was raised in Shrevesport, La., where he experienced segregation firsthand. He had to drink from “colored only” drinking foundations and use restrooms set aside for “colored” people. He had to get off the boardwalk when white people were coming. As a teenager, he moved north to Illinois where he attended Aurora West High School.
“I went from an all-black environment to a high school where there were 606 in my class, and six of us were black,” said Davenport, who became class president.
In his role as the chauffeur, he is reminded of the duality that blacks had to have to survive in that era.
“But this work is subtle and it’s not preachy. Yet the issue is so vivid,” he said. “It’s a tender and wonderful play, and I am grateful to be able to do it.
“What’s really exciting for me is to deal with an actress that has a similar mindset in her approach to the work and who is meticulous about the language,” he said of Crouse. “She is all from the heart and one of the smartest actresses I’ve ever worked with.”
Davenport, who now lives in Ayer, has performed in more than 200 productions, including dozens of roles in works by Shakespeare in the United States and overseas. He has performed many times with Shakespeare & Company and at the Stratford Shakespeare festival. He has won an Elliot Norton Award and BroadwayWorld Boston Award for his acting.
Crouse, who earned an Academy Award nomination decades ago for her role in “Places in the Heart,” has found this role a challenge in terms of the journey of this country in addressing tolerance.
“You get a firsthand experience of what prejudice is like. This is a woman who doesn’t think of herself as prejudiced — a good woman — but who doesn’t want to accept personal responsibility for her actions at all. As I got deeper into rehearsal, I realized it hurts to do this. It’s the basis of prejudice.”
She referred to a speech by the late Martin Luther King Jr. where he stated the greatest tragedy stems from the silence of the good people in the face of racism.
“This play is still very relevant, which means it stuck a chord, a deep recognition of the subject matter at hand. People recognize themselves in her. This a simple piece on the surface but very profound,” Crouse said.
“One can view ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ through the prism of a quarter century of our country’s painstaking, inexorable evolution toward more enlightened cross-racial understanding and equality of citizenship during the mid-19th century,” wrote Benny Sato Ambush in his director’s note.
Ambush made his Gloucester Stage debut last year directing “Master Harold … and the Boys” for which he won the IRNE Award for Best Director. Known for his artistic leadership as a long-time director and teacher, he has a long resume of directing and teaching. In 2005, he directed the 68th annual edition of America’s oldest and longest running outdoor drama “The Lost Colony” in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He is Distinguished Producing Director-In-Residence at Emerson Stage and on the acting and directing faculty in the Department of Performing Arts at Emerson College, Boston.
He suggested that this story still captures an audience’s attention since its world premiere in 1987 “because it advocates for essential human engagement — acknowledging the worth of another — and giving the gift of self.
“A product of her time and place, Miss Daisy achieves new eyes and a more open heart within the context of the shifting political and social tensions of the era,” he wrote. “... Miss Daisy, Hoke and Boolie show us that giving, and loving, are devotions that, when applied on a massive scale, can repair our fractured social body.”
Crouse has performed nearly every year at Gloucester Stage since her debut there in 2007. A veteran of the New York stage, she has performed off and on Broadway, and has won the Obie and Theater World awards. At the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, she starred with John Mahoney in Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” breaking the theater’s box office records. Her television credits include guest roles on “C.S.I.,” “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Touched By An Angel,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Frasier,” and as Judge Andrews on “Law and Order SVU.”
A feature film veteran, Crouse’s movie credits include “The Insider,” “The Verdict,” “House of Games,” “Slapshot,” “All The President’s Men,” “Indian In The Cupboard,” and “Places In The Heart, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
Her parents began summering in Gloucester in the late 1940s as an escape from New York City, and she continues to summer here. Her father was playwright Russel Crouse, who often worked here with his longtime partner and collaborator Howard Lindsay, after who she is named. Their partnership of over 28 years is one of the longest in theater history and responsible for hits such as “The Sound of Music,” “Anything Goes,” “Life With Father” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The State of the Union.”
Robert Pemberton, who won an Elliot Norton Award for his role in the world premiere of “Shel’s Shorts” at the Market Theatre, plays the role of Daisy’s son. His film work includes “By the Sea” (nominated for a Latin Oscar), and his television credits include “Another World,” “Guiding Light,” and “Unsolved Mysteries.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go What: The Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy." Where: Gloucester Stage Company, at 267 East Main St. in Gloucester. When: Tonight through Saturday, Sept. 7; Wednesday, Sept. 11 through Saturday, Sept. 14 ;and Wednesday, Sept.18 through Saturday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m. Also Saturday matinees on Sept. 7, 14 and 21 at 3 p.m., and Sunday performances on Sept. 8, 15 and 22 at 4 p.m. The Sept. 7 Saturday matinee is a Pay What You Can matinee. Following the 4 p.m. performance Sept. 8, audiences are invited to a free post show discussion with the artists. How much: $40, $35 for senior citizens and students, for all performances. For reservations or further information, call the Gloucester Stage Box Office at 978-281-4433 or visit www.gloucesterstage.com.