Up for the challenge
Shirley Patton never had a doubt she wanted to do "Driving Miss Daisy." Livia Genise, the artistic director of Talent's Camelot Theatre, asked the veteran actor last year whether she would like to play Daisy Werthan, the elderly white woman in Alfred Uhry's 1987 play that won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film that won four Academy Awards.
"What actor of a certain age wouldn't?" Patton says.
But there was a problem. Patton had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. You couldn't design something more menacing to the actor's instrument — her voice and body — if you tried.
"I told Livia, 'If Daisy can have Parkinson's, yes,' " Patton says.
Which is why she can be seen, along with Steven Dominguez as Hoke Colburn, the man who does the driving, and Roy Von Rains Jr., as Daisy's son, Boolie, in the warmly received production of the play running through March 2 at Camelot.
Parkinson's is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system for which there is no cure. Patients in the early stages often develop tremors, move slowly and have trouble walking. Speech may be affected.
Patton told Genise it would be impossible for her to mask her visible symptom, a tremor in one hand. Genise was OK with that. So this Daisy has a tremor. Sometimes it moves to the other hand. Sometimes Patton feels it internally.
She's not taking medication for it for the duration of the show because she doesn't know how she would respond or what side effects there might be.
"I'll take it after the show closes and people aren't relying on me for anything," she says.
The play is the story of the relationship between Miss Daisy, a well-off Jewish widow in Georgia, and Hoke, the dignified, plain-spoken African-American man who works for her from 1948 to 1973. There is a mountain of dialogue between the two actors, meaning the parts are very large indeed. Patton, 76, who acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Company for 33 years, felt a lot of anxiety about remembering all those lines.
"I didn't know whether my brain could still do it with a role of that length," she says. "I needed to devote a huge amount of time to it. I still review it every day."
Upping the ante still further was the specificity of the play's language, as Uhry's regional, multicultural cast goes through four decades of sweeping change in the South and the nation.
"The difference between almost having Alfred's words and having them precisely was extreme," Patton says. "Having the idea is not good enough. It was so important to have it just as elegant as he put it down there ... the rhythms of the language and how they respond to each other."
She figures her accuracy is about 97 percent. Every now and then she inverts a phrase or something. She says her fellow actors help her get past any glitches.
"Stephen and Roy are very generous performers," she says. "I feel safe with them."
Paul Jones, who directed, says Patton came to the first rehearsal in January with almost all of her lines memorized.
"Up until we opened there were places she was having trouble," he says. "She worked like the pro she is."
Another possible stumbling block was the large number of quick costume changes, as the play sometimes jumps several years between scenes.
"Some of the costumes had to be re-done," Jones says. "Velcro is our friend. It's important for her to be able to go off-stage and know the dressers (Camelot's Brianna Gowland and Shelly Hall, who doubled as stage manager) are going to change her."
Jones says working with Patton was a joyful experience.
"She's a true professional," he says. "She takes any direction, any idea, and tries to make it work. Much of what you see is her, not me."
In the play, Daisy is irritated that Boolie has hired Hoke to drive her, making him a symbol of her loss of independence. For much of the play she is so self-absorbed she can barely see Hoke.
"She seems immune to an interest in his having a life," Patton says, "and yet there are those breakthroughs when she's genuinely interested."
Many Parkinson's patients experience a symptom known as "masking," or mask-like facial expressions. But Daisy's/Patton's expressions, carriage and voice change at moments of breakthrough.
Voice problems are another symptom. Patton says her voice is rougher than it used to be, but she doesn't know if that's the disease or just aging. She wonders if the years of exercises she's had with the facial muscles will slow down any onset of masking.
"I've been doing a lot of work on balance," Patton says. "I enjoy walking, striding out, taking big steps, things that may become compromised as I travel this path."
Late in the play, Hoke has a simple yet touching gesture that symbolizes the bond the characters have built over the years. The action is in the script, but Patton's tell-tale tremor seems to lend it a heightened resonance.
For Patton, the best part of acting always has been the fascination of entering other lives and other worlds. She even loves rehearsals, which can be grueling.
Then comes the tough part, the familiar pre-performance arc of killer fright, a fainting feeling, trouble breathing, thoughts that she's done her last play. When she hears Genise finish her curtain speech, and the house lights dim, it's like the moment at the top of a roller coaster ride just before everything hurtles down out of control.
"You think, 'I can't do this anymore,' and you do it," she says, perhaps echoing Samuel Beckett. "You may feel robotic, but somebody will say something nice and it all changes.
"Sixty-five years I've been doing this. You'd think I'd find a way to finesse it."
Two hours later, the lights go up and the applause fills the house. The night a reporter sees the show the applause goes on for a long time.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.