Solid chemistry drives 'Daisy'

Special to The Times

While the dignity of the presidency crumbled in the early 1970s, one authority figure never let us down: Olivia Walton. Michael Learned won three Emmys for her portrayal of a rural Virginia matriarch in a series that insisted old-school values still mattered. We weren't suckers, said "The Waltons," to believe that your word was your bond, no matter how many people were lying in Washington.

Three decades later, Learned takes her signature decency farther South, in a flinty turn as a Jewish widow from Georgia in La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' unadorned, affecting production of "Driving Miss Daisy."

Atlanta, 1948. When a 72-year-old Daisy Werthan plows her car into a garage door, her son (Morgan Rusler) hires Hoke Coleburn (Lance E. Nichols) to be her chauffeur. The African American Hoke isn't shy to say he's glad to work for Jews, since they pay better than the skinflint gentiles who bad-mouth them. What begins as a meet-cute deepens across a quarter-century, through holidays, the civil rights movement and grocery runs.

Director Brian Kite rightly treats Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning chamber piece as a series of sketches rather than a full-on play, and everything about this production is suggested rather than stated. Kite doesn't get in the way of the story; he merely sets its rhythm (using Robert Waldeman's deft, moving score) and gives his actors room to find the silences. Set designer John Iacovelli's abstracted Southern living room cleverly supplies the many automobiles that foster Daisy and Hoke's emerging attachment.

Uhry, who based the play on his own grandmother and her driver, didn't exactly change theater as we know it; he did, however, create a couple of immensely enjoyable roles for old pros. Learned's accent doesn't quite conjure magnolias and the Piggly Wiggly, but she nails Daisy's grit, at once impressive and myopic. This actress' palpable strength has always been part of her appeal, and at nearly 70, she still possesses a vitality that makes her almost unconvincing as a senior citizen. The droll Nichols settles into Uhry's patois like a favorite easy chair; he lends the evening its warmth without indulging in easy sentiment. Their performances have a specificity and directness that keep "Driving" from ever feeling like a pat commentary on race.

This 90-minute play spans 25 years, and there is something unnerving about how blithely time races past these two durable souls. You want the play to slow down, set awhile, but it skips along like an old tale, confident that there'll always be new listeners. The final image couldn't be simpler, yet it hits just the right note of tenderness and elegy, rendered with grace by Learned and Nichols.

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'Driving Miss Daisy'

Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 17

Cost: $37.50 to $45

Contact: (562) 944-9801 or www.lamiradatheatre.com

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