Wherever you look, today’s news headlines are sadly filled with ongoing instances of prejudice, be it in the ugly forms of racism, anti-Semitism, or most recently, countless sexual assault allegations that have rocked the pillars of Hollywood and the political system.
How thankfully timely it is, then, that playwright Alfred Uhry’s masterpiece, “Driving Miss Daisy” – which explores a unique friendship emerging amongst painfully sensitive themes of racism and anti-Semitism in the South in the mid-20th century – makes its way to Mansfield Music & Arts Society’s Black Box Theater stage this month.
“Daisy” unfolds over one act at a rapid 90-minute clip and runs through Dec.17. Many theatergoers will undoubtedly compare this stage production to the intimate, heartfelt, Academy award-winning 1989 film, which landed the late, great actress Jessica Tandy a best actress statuette, while also earning the fabulous Morgan Freeman some of the most glowing critical reviews of his career.
That legendary acting duo portrayed Daisy Worthan – a 72-year-old wealthy, Jewish, widowed, retired schoolteacher – and Hoke Colburn – a 60-year old unemployed chauffeur hired by Daisy’s businessman son, Boolie. Their relationship begins in 1948 and spans across 25 years in Atlanta, Georgia. In lieu of Tandy and Freeman, audiences are treated to luminous performances by the always superb Beth Goldman of Norwood and Dana Reid of Peabody.
Daisy’s stubbornness is ubiquitous, from her initial reluctance to be driven by Hoke in the brand-new Buick purchased by Boolie (a rascally fun Steve Dooner of Weymouth) to her insistence that Hoke drives further out of the way to the local market purely because she’s grown accustomed to and comfortable with the route she’s always taken. At one point, just as Daisy’s about to pettily accuse Hoke of stealing a can of salmon, he reveals that he ate it the day prior for lunch, only to arrive with a new can. It’s Hoke’s honesty, humility, and genuine positive outlook on life – in spite of the hardships he has experienced as an aging black man in the South – that slowly thaw Daisy’s icy exterior.
The pair’s relationship evolves over time, beginning with the retired schoolteacher’s willingness to show her driving companion how to read tombstones while planting at her late husband’s grave. It’s a pivotal moment, where Hoke shares his embarrassment over his inability to read, and how Daisy gladly helps him on his journey towards literacy.
Years later, Hoke and Daisy take a road trip to visit her family in Mobile, Alabama. Although Daisy insists to her son that she is not prejudiced, she unwittingly treats Hoke as a second-class citizen when she forbids him to relieve himself in the woods after they take a wrong turn and find themselves lost. Hoke cannot stop at a local gas station given that segregation exists in the South, and the scene serves a painful reminder of how systemic racism existed then (and still does today).
A later scene finds Hoke revealing the disturbing news to Daisy that her reform temple has been bombed. Hoke decides to console her by sharing his own painful experiences of racial bigotry. It’s yet another poignant moment in which the aging duo mutually understand that they’ve both been victims of prejudice that continues unabated in the South.
Themes of racial intolerance also seep into Boolie’s decision to bypass accompanying his mother to a dinner with Martin Luther King Jr. out of concerns that his racist business partners will not approve of his attendance, resulting in him asking Daisy to consider inviting Hoke in his place. Hoke is insulted by Daisy’s decision not invite him until the evening of the event, resulting in Daisy attending by herself as Hoke listens to King’s powerful speech from his car radio.
Years later, with Daisy now in her 90s and experiencing early onset dementia, we find Hoke calming her down after one of her episodes, and she lucidly acknowledges after all of these years together that Hoke is her best friend.
As Daisy and Hoke, while Goldman and Reid may never recapture the magic that the tandem of Tandy and Freeman (who would?), but they come awfully close. Both actors successfully re-create their characters’ authentic Southern drawls and progressively worse gaits as they age. Most importantly, however, they nail the intimate relationship that evolves over two decades and that coincides with the Civil Rights movement and other socially radical changes sweeping both the South and the rest of the country. They slowly come to realize that they need each other’s companionship during these progressive and often challenging times.
While the unbridled energy and passion that Goldman exhibits as she thrusts herself into the role of Daisy was to be expected from this gifted actress, it is Reid’s deliberately understated performance and his ability to infuse Hoke with such grace that resonated most. Notwithstanding donning a marvelously impressive graying wig, I had to pinch myself to serve as a reminder that this was only a youngster so seamlessly portraying an elderly man.
As Boolie, Dooner shines in his supporting role, conveying his character’s frustration, yet ultimately affection for his aging, stubborn mother.
Under Dori Bryan Ployer’s unfussy direction, “Driving Miss Daisy” effortlessly glides on the wings of its actors’ unflinchingly honest performances. At the play’s conclusion, both characters have comfortably re-adjusted the metaphoric “routes” they’ve taken in their lives, while coming to respect each other’s differences and unique perspectives.
As an 85-year-old Hoke with declining vision is seen tenderly feeding a now- frail 97-year-old Daisy a slice of pumpkin pie in her retirement home, you’ll realize that a friendship so complicated as this never tasted so sweet.
“Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Dec. 17. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets: $25 to $29. Tickets may be purchased on-line at Media or by calling 508-339-2822.
Mansfield resident Paul Kaufman is a healthcare professional. He is a husband and father and writes a restaurant review blog at Media He can be reached at Media
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