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Driving Miss Daisy
by Alfred Uhry
Directed by Sydnie Grosberg Ronga
New Jewish Theatre
December 4 2016

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that has become so well-known for its film version that it may become difficult to abandoned preconceived notions when going to see the stage version.  I personally had never seen the play before seeing the current production at New Jewish Theatre, although I had seen the film several times.  I know that a good production can easily make one set aside other versions if you give it a chance, and NJT’s production is an excellent production. It’s a story of a 25-year relationship and a specific time and place, challenging assumptions and more preconceived notions, and the casting is ideal.

The familiar story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s own family history, centers around widowed retired schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (J. Samuel Davis), who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Eric Dean White) after Daisy crashes her car and becomes too much of an insurance risk to drive. The proud Daisy insists she doesn’t need a driver at first, but Hoke is persistent and their initially rocky relationship grows closer over the years. The relationship dynamic is the centerpiece of this show, but the context is also extremely important, and although it’s not primarily a play about social commentary, it can be challenging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  The rich, Jewish Daisy insists that she isn’t rich and that she isn’t prejudiced against African-Americans, although the way she treats Hoke, especially at first, often belies that declaration. Even the seemingly easygoing Boolie is too afraid for his reputation to attend a dinner in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been invited to speak. The effort here is more to portray a specific relationship as it unfolds in the time and place–Atlanta, Georgia from 1948 until 1973–within the context of the highly restrictive and often volatile culture of the time. The relationship is the  centerpiece, however. The characters are well-drawn and the play tells a compelling, believable story in its roughly 90 minute running time.

Uhry’s play is well-structured and serves as an excellent showcase for its actors, led by NJT’s Artistic Director Sitzer in a rare acting role as Daisy.  Sitzer is excellent in portraying the complex character of Daisy, who is proud, stubborn, and set in her ways, but whose stubbornness masks an underlying vulnerability.  Davis is also excellent as Hoke, convincingly portraying the character’s developing relationship with Daisy and displaying a great deal of personal strength and determination. Both performers excel in the witty banter as well as the more dramatic moments of the piece, and the growth of their relationship from antagonistic to affectionate is convincing, as is their characters’ aging over the years as presented in the story. White also gives a strong performance as the personable, conciliatory Boolie.

The set, as is usual for productions at NJT, is impressive. Scenic designer Dunsi Dai has created a believable, elegantly appointed house fronted by a representation of a car in which Hoke and Daisy make their various excursions. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are detailed and appropriately evocative of time and place, as well as the changing styles over the years. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Mark Wilson that helps to evoke the changing of time and season, and strong sound design by Zoe Sullivan. Music from the times is effectively used to help set the scene in various moments, as well.

This is a well-known play that I think is more complex than is often perceived. It can be sharp, challenging, and convicting as well as funny and heartwarming in moments.  Mostly, it’s a portrayal of particular distinctive characters and their growing, complex relationship.  New Jewish Theatre’s production is an excellent presentation of this memorable story.

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Kathleen Sitzer, Eric Dean White, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Driving Miss Daisy at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 18, 2016.

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