On the Arts

Sandy Duncan ages into 'Driving Miss Daisy'

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMay 3, 2014 

Sandy Duncan in N.C. Theatre’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

CURTIS BROWN — CASA MANANA

  • Details

    What: Sandy Duncan starring in N.C. Theatre’s “Driving Miss Daisy”

    When: Through May 11

    Where: A.J. Fletcher Theatre at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

    Cost: $56.75-$78.30

    Info: 919-831-6941 ext.6944 or nctheatre.com

What do you get when you put granny glasses and a gray wig on Peter Pan? Peter Pan in granny glasses and a gray wig.

RALEIGH

That’s how a newspaper review opened in 2009, the last time Sandy Duncan played the title character in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Reading it during a break in rehearsals for N.C. Theatre’s production, Duncan laughed and made a confession.

“I actually don’t remember doing this at all,” she said. “I had calcemia from taking too much vitamin D. The bottle was mislabeled and I was taking about 25 times the dosage I was supposed to, which put me in a state of total dementia. I did three plays like that and it was awful. I thought I was losing my mind with early onset of Alzheimer’s. Finally, my son insisted I go to the hospital and they figured it out.”

Duncan recovered well enough that she was able to play Ruby Keeler in “No, No, Nanette” several years later, “doing the windshield-wiper leg kicks in front of all these 24-year-olds,” she said. But Duncan required pain shots to get through every show (she’s a trouper, after all), and she finally had to have back surgery earlier this year.

“Aging sucks,” declared Duncan, who is now 68 years old. “I can’t think of one positive thing about it; there’s a new ache or wrinkle every day. I don’t know if I want to dance anymore. I’m gonna be 69 this year, and it gets to be unseemly. You do get to a point where you shouldn’t. But we all age differently. I don’t think I look 68, but this role of Daisy was originated by a woman who was 46.

“It’s theater, which suspends reality,” she added. “It doesn’t matter what the character’s age is. ‘Put gray tights on a 35-year-old and have her play a 12-year-old’ – whoever heard of such a thing?”

‘I get Daisy’s dilemma’

One possible silver lining is that getting older has given Duncan ample psychological preparation to play Daisy Werthan, a role that won Jessica Tandy an Academy Award for the 1989 movie version. “Driving Miss Daisy” centers on the longtime relationship between Daisy and Hoke (played by Kevyn Morrow in the NCT production), an African-American chauffeur that Daisy’s son Boolie (Bob Hess) hires against her will.

Daisy is Jewish and living in the South, and racial and religious tensions create ample room for conflict. Still, the character’s declining faculties serve as her biggest hurdle throughout.

“I absolutely relate to this part,” Duncan said. “Once you cross that great divide of 65, there are a lot of fears and issues, and I’ve had them all. At a certain point, everything gets credited to age and you feel like you’re losing it. You get afraid things will be taken away, or you’ll be put somewhere. I totally get Daisy’s dilemma.”

Not that empathy makes the part any easier to play. Duncan described “Driving Miss Daisy” as “deceptively hard” for an actor. It consists of around two-dozen vignettes spanning a quarter-century, with numerous whiplash shifts in both emotion and chronology.

“It’s tough on the actors,” said Eric Woodall, the play’s director. “They finish one scene and then have to figure out what’s next – what they’re feeling, and what age they are. There are no stops, either. The entire time, Sandy is either onstage or changing clothes backstage. So it really does not let up. Once she starts that drive, it doesn’t stop.”

Long career, landmark roles

“Driving Miss Daisy” represents a homecoming of sorts for Woodall, who grew up in Benson before going off to New York to work as a casting director. When he signed on to direct “Daisy” for NCT, his first choice was Duncan – partly because she’s a native Southerner (born and raised in Texas), and partly because the first Broadway show he ever saw was Duncan playing “Peter Pan” in the 1980s.

“I think I was 12, and seeing her was part of the bug that bit me to do this,” Woodall said. “After the show, I told my mom, ‘This is what I wanna do.’ I’ve always had a love for her and that show and many other things she’s done on TV and stage.”

Going back to her 1970s heyday, Duncan’s career includes roles in landmarks like the 1977 mini-series “Roots,” not to mention pitch-woman for Nabisco’s Wheat Thins. Her pixie-ish stature and demeanor also landed Duncan parts as “Pinocchio” as well as “Peter Pan.”

But ask Duncan her favorite part and she cites her first big job in New York, the musical “Carousel” with choreographer Agnes de Mille. Duncan was initially dismissed during tryouts (because, she said, “I’m a terrible auditioner”) before being called back because de Mille was dissatisfied with her alternatives for the part of Louise.

“Agnes told me, ‘All right, I’m givin’ ya the part, but you’ve gotta take 10 pounds of that lard off,’ ” Duncan said, laughing at the memory. “‘Oh, um … OK.’ I’ve never exactly been big. Opening night came and Agnes was with Philip Burton, Richard’s father. Afterward she told me, ‘That was lovely, my dear, but Bambi Linn jumped higher.’ Bambi Linn had done the part originally. And Richard said, ‘Yes, but you see, Agnes, Sandy knows why she’s jumping.’

“I cling to that.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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