Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy has passed the quarter-century mark, but in terms of its charm and emotional impact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 play hasn’t aged a bit.
In 2010, long after it hit Off-Broadway, a star-driven production marked the play’s Broadway debut, with Vanessa Redgrave playing cantankerous Daisy Werthan to James Earl Jones’ Hoke Colburn, the man hired to chauffeur the accident-prone Miss Daisy.
Now South Florida has its own revival of Driving Miss Daisy, and this one is also powered by fine acting. The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan, which has brought the former Florida Stage space back to life, has thus far concentrated on musical revues. But for this foray into Miss Daisy’s funny, poignant world, producer Alan Jacobson has hired three strong actors and director Michael Leeds, all of them pros who know how to deliver all the emotional colors of Uhry’s play.
The central relationship in Driving Miss Daisy is between Daisy (Harriet Oser) and Hoke (John Archie), though Daisy’s businessman son Boolie (Ken Clement) is a caring presence throughout. It’s Boolie who insists his 72-year-old mama stop driving after she wrecks yet another almost-new car, and it’s Boolie who hires the experienced Hoke to be her driver.
The journey that Daisy and Hoke take together, in scenes that carry them from 1948 to 1973, involves the gradual deepening of the relationship between an elderly Jewish widow and her black chauffeur. Set in Atlanta against the eventual backdrop of the civil rights movement, Uhry’s play makes observant points about different kinds of prejudice, the loss of autonomy that comes with aging, and the beauty of an unlikely friendship.
Leeds draws strong, engaging work from all three actors, each of whom is among the region’s best performers.
The slender, elegant Oser is dressed by costume designer Jerry Sturdefant in carefully put together outfits that speak to Daisy’s age and comfortable economic position. The actress barks orders to Hoke and lets both him and Boolie know that she’s going to keep pushing back against the turn her life has taken. Yet Oser also communicates the fear Daisy feels as control slips away.
Archie makes Hoke a warm man whose sense of humor and thick skin allow him to shrug off most of Daisy’s demanding ways. His sharing of past trauma becomes one of the production’s most memorable moments, and his final scene with Oser is one of bittersweet tenderness. As Boolie, Clement makes it clear that despite Daisy’s bristling manner, her son genuinely loves her and will always make sure she is cared for.
Set and lighting designer Paul Thomas creates three separate playing areas — Daisy’s home, Boolie’s office and the car Hoke drives — using just part of the stage, which angles the action in an odd way. Hopefully, the Plaza’s three remaining shows this season will make fuller use of the space.
But given the region’s recent theater losses, it’s good to have comedy, drama and musicals back in Manalapan — especially when a show is as well-acted as Driving Miss Daisy.