Until last week's opening night performance at Thunder Bay Theatre, I'd forgotten just what a jewel "Driving Miss Daisy" really is. Not only does this Pulitzer, Academy and Tony Award-winning drama written by Alfred Uhry manage to convey epic social and political themes, but it does so in a deeply personal and intimate way.
Running 90 minutes in length, the show also features only three characters who over many brief scenes spanning 25 years have much to say about friendship, the process of aging and long-held prejudices. TBT's must-see production, directed by J.R. Rodriguez, is enhanced immensely by the three actors cast as Miss Daisy, her son, Boolie and her black chauffeur, Hoke.
As the play opens in the late 1940s in Atlanta, Ga., Miss Daisy is being forced by her son to take on a chauffeur after having caused a car crash. Veteran actress Terry Carlson draws a wonderfully rich portrait of Miss Daisy as a cranky, Southern Jewish matron who is indignant over the prospect of someone else driving her around and whisking away her independence. "I was brought up to do for myself," she says in a huff. Carlson infuses Miss Daisy with a stately elegance, a flintiness and a dry sense of humor.
Derek Spack, another seasoned TBT performer, plays Miss Daisy's exasperated but loving son. As Hoke, Spack totally captures his character's attempts, albeit occasionally condescending, to be a voice of reason and to care for his mother while also juggling a busy career and a trying wife.
TBT brought in LeShawn Bell to do the challenging role of Hoke (actors James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman both have handled this part!). What a fortuitous decision. Bell only had one week to learn his lines, but viewers would never guess that. Though only in his twenties, he completely nails the quiet dignity and long-suffering patience of Hoke.
Miss Daisy initially refuses Hoke's assistance, but eventually she permits him to transport her to the grocery store. What begins as a rigid professional relationship for Miss Daisy eventually ripens into a friendship. Toward the end in one of the most impactful scenes she tells Hoke that he is her best friend.
This evolving friendship between two unlikely people, both considered minorities, is juxtaposed against the turbulent Civil Rights years of changing attitudes toward race and class. The pair goes about their everyday lives during the not-so-distant past of whites-only bathrooms and racially motivated bombings of black churches or Jewish synagogues.
The single set designed for "Driving Miss Daisy" serves multiple purposes well, including Miss Daisy's living room, Boolie's office and at the end, Miss Daisy's nursing home quarters.
Most of the action takes place either in the living room or in the car, which is represented by two benches. Though simple in concept, the benches work due in no small part to the believability of Carlson and Bell. Lighting is key too, and effectively shifts to different parts of the stage as the scenes shift from living room to office to car.
Both Carlson and Bell also beautifully convey the gradual shift to old age of their characters. Miss Daisy's arthritic carefulness and Hoke's stooped shuffle speak volumes.
Even with the ravages of time working against them, however, there is the consolation of friendship. This is born out in moving fashion in the final scene at the nursing home. From beginning to end, TBT's "Driving Miss Daisy" definitely rings with detail, depth and emotional truth. It is a true gem of theatre.
Remaining performances are this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For reservations, call the box office at 354-2267.