Play: “Driving Miss Daisy”
Group: Dramatic License Productions
Venue: Dramatic License Theatre, Chesterfield Mall (upper level next to Houlihans’)
Dates: March 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, 27
Tickets: $22-$25; contact 636-220-7012 or www.dramaticlicenseproductions.com
Story: It’s 1948, and Atlanta banker Boolie Werthan is concerned about his 72-year-old mother, Daisy. The widow Werthan has been involved in another automobile accident caused by her increasingly reckless driving. Boolie decides that Mama has taken her last spin behind the wheel, and puts out an ad for a driver.
When he interviews an engaging African-American gentleman named Hoke Coleburn, he finds the man’s solid work record and genial demeanor to his liking and hires him to chauffeur his cantankerous mother. After a fitful start dealing with the irascible Daisy, Hoke slowly wins over her begrudging acceptance and, eventually in the course of his 25-year tenure, her friendship as well.
Highlights: Alfred Uhry won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this brisk and bright one-act play, which cleverly observes the changing social scene in America through the budding relationship between an elderly Jewish lady and her black driver. It’s the first of Uhry’s trilogy of works that delve into the Jewish experience in 20th century Atlanta, including “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and “Parade.” The initial off-Broadway production starred Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman, while a current Broadway revival features the talents of James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. Freeman reprised his role in the 1989 film that co-starred Jessica Tandy and Dan Aykroyd.
Other Info: The current presentation by Dramatic License Productions is a breezy, 75-minute bit that showcases the talents of three of St. Louis’ finest performers under the watchful eye of director Annamaria Pileggi. On a simple and straightforward set designed by Courtney Sanazaro-Sloey, Pileggi’s trio of players, namely Sally Eaton, Dennis Lebby and B. Weller, precisely demonstrate their craft in honing fine characterizations of three distinct personalities.
Eaton embodies the fierce independence of Daisy as well as her obstinacy and snippets of prejudice that reveal themselves in conversations with her son as well as Hoke. Importantly, though, she’s able to reveal Daisy’s innate decency as we see Atlanta move from the Jim Crow era into the Civil Rights period and the subsequent regeneration of the city.
Lebby has portrayed Hoke in four different productions and continues to shape the character with nuances and inflections that show Hoke’s perspective on America in the mid-20th century. He’s as capable delivering a line with deadpan comic timing as he is depicting Hoke’s quiet but firm anger at the injustices endured by blacks for the greater part of his life. Weller rounds out the portrayals with a well-modulated interpretation of Boolie that shows his compassion as well as his trepidation at being identified too closely to the Civil Rights movement lest his business suffer.
In many ways, “Driving Miss Daisy” is a small show, a series of vignettes that gradually reveal the growth of a nation through the development of the relationship between two individuals. It’s not so much a work filled with dramatic ebbs and flows as a steady ride aboard the train of social change. The sound design by Joseph Pini keeps us posted on the various eras through a judicious selection of pop tunes of the day, while Jane Sullivan’s costumes (and the subtle graying of Weller’s hair) suitably indicate the time and place, complemented by Ian Stoutenburgh’s lighting and Peggy Knock’s properties.
Watching “Driving Miss Daisy” is a lot like a visit with familiar old friends, made all the more agreeable by stellar acting in Pileggi’s affecting treatment.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5