Sunday, January 10, 2016

Driving Miss Daisy

Janis Stevens as Daisy gives orders to
Michael J. Asberry as Hoke in Sacramento
Theatre Company’s production of "Driving Miss Daisy"

The Sacramento Theater Company has discovered the perfect recipe for a hit.  Start with a wonderful Pulitzer prize winning play like “Driving Miss Daisy” by Alfred Uhry, add amazing actors like Michael J. Asberry as Hoke, Scott Divine as Boolie, and the incomparable Janis Stevens as Miss Daisy.  Stir all with the brilliant young director Benjamin T. Ismail, pop into the lovely Pollock Theater, let simmer for 90 minutes and produce a gourmet delight.

The play, which was inspired by the playwright's own grandmother and her chauffeur tells the story of the evolving relationship of an elderly white widow and her black chauffeur across 25 years and subtly mirrors the changing times in this country in the bargain.

Though this play premiered off Broadway in 1987, we are probably most familiar with the 1989 movie, starring Jessica Tandy in the title role and Morgan Freeman as the driver, Hoke (Freeman also played the role in the original play).

This 72 year old critic was a bit miffed when Boolie tells his mother at the start of the play that she’s 72 years old and, following an accident, is too old to drive and that he is going to hire a chauffeur for her.  The amiable Hoke is hired and spends his first week trying to get Miss Daisy to let him drive her...anywhere, but the irascible woman refuses his offers to help, determined not to give up her independence.
She does eventually relent and thus begins the long road that leads, through all the emotional twists, turns and bumps along the way, to her admitting after more than 25 years that he has been her best friend. In this world of CGI, action films, loud music and frenetic dancing, this is a simple story of friendship, family and love.

Miss Daisy is a wealthy retired school teacher (though terribly embarrassed to admit that she has money, and so concerned about it that she is fearful that Hoke is stealing from her when she discovers one can of salmon is missing from her pantry).

Hoke’s patience is admirable and he gradually wins her respect and even her affection.
When the old woman discovers Hoke is illiterate, and she teaches him to read and shows pride in his accomplishment.  Later, Hoke, cleverly negotiating a raise with Boolie, lapses into an Ohio accent, which is very funny.

Taking us through the turbulent post World War II years and through the Jim Crow south, this is a show that tugs at your heart strings without being sappy, it gives a moral lesson in the most understated, yet powerful, way, and still brings a lot of laughs.  It is a reminder that friendship can make all the difference in troubled times.

After the bombing of her synagogue, when Miss Daisy talks about anti-Semitism in the south, Hoke shares his experience seeing his uncle hanged for being black and their friendship deepens by their shared experience with racism.  A particularly strong, moving scene concerns Hoke’s need to take a bathroom break on a long drive and Miss Daisy being reminded that blacks cannot use restrooms in gas stations in the south.

When Miss Daisy, now 91, develops dementia and has to be placed in a mental health facility, Hoke, now retired, visits her not as her chauffeur, but as her friend.

The success of any production of this play depends on the skill and sensitivity of the three actors and STC could not ask for better.  Particularly impressive is watching all three very subtly age 25 years over 90 minutes.  The performance of all three talented performers should not be missed.

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