“Mega-hit" plays such as Driving Miss Daisy must necessarily prove a mixed blessing to regional playhouse management. On the positive side they are enormously popular with the public and hence ensure good turnout. Negatively, especially with one of this level of popularity and appeal, there is the risk of invidious comparisons with the many other productions. But, in this first of six scheduled performances, Director Beth Honeycutt and The Towne Players at the Garner Performing Arts Center had no cause for undue concern, such was the quality of the production.
Breathes there a soul anywhere from sea to shining sea that is not rather familiar with the essence of Miss Daisy's story? To summarize the plot of this Alfred Uhry play, one could scarcely do better than to call upon the Players' own press release: “…Driving Miss Daisy… is the warm hearted, humorous study of the unlikely friendship between an ornery Southern [Jewish] white woman and a proud, soft-spoken black man." Complementing that summary is the director's note from the playbill. This show, she says, “…is about race and tolerance, … a show about growing older and the fear of losing independence and purpose."
The cast members, obviously veterans in these roles, could not readily be bettered. Tim Upchurch brings to Boolie Werthan, Miss Daisy's son, an appropriately free-spirited air. He obviously loves his mother, but he understandably does not like her all that much. Holmes Morrison readily becomes Hoke Colburn, the larger-than-life driver with such patience as would make one forget about Job. Frances Stanley instills in Miss Daisy an utterly believable complexity, true southern gentility and erudition with a strong admixture of irascibility. Her initial severe resistance to tolerating Hoke's help gradually gives way to a somewhat tense standoff. These actors seem to understand the arts of projection and enunciation. (Note to director: Please hold back the dialog until all audience laughter dies away.)
The work contains no “acts" as such. It progresses in a series of vignettes over the period 1948-73, with no evident anachronisms. The effective and spartan stage needed no modifications during the action. The “bumper" music, mostly a mix of cello and banjo, significantly enhanced the inter-scene segues.
During the lapsed quarter century, the characters grow old with varying degrees of grace. Boolie further matures but retains most of his go-along-to-get-along persona. Becoming noticeably feeble and no longer able to drive, Hoke takes on a surface gruffness while losing none of his compassion. Miss Daisy's disintegration late in this period is of course the heart of the drama. Now well into her nineties, she slips inexorably into the grip of a hideous dementia, an ailment that brings on alternate periods of rationality and hysteria. She has long since come to terms with her need for the type of assistance that Hoke has ever provided. Living in a full care facility, she longs for his visits, made less and less frequent by his own immobility.
“You're my best friend, Hoke…." “Yes'm, Miss Daisy."
This play continues through 1/28. For details, see the sidebar.