Review by Doug Iden of “Driving Miss Daisy”: Covedale Theatre
The Pulitzer Prize winning play “Driving Miss Daisy” rode triumphantly into the Covedale Theater. Written by Alfred Uhry, the play views the relationship of two very different people over a 25-year period in mid-20th century Atlanta, Georgia. Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Labanz) at age 72 crashes her car and both the insurance company and her son Boolie (Justin Baldwin) insist that she stop driving, much to the chagrin of Daisy. Boolie decides to hire a driver (Hoke Coleburn, played by Dante Donaldson) which initiates the long-term, somewhat tempestuous relationship between the two.
Hoke and Daisy are almost polar opposites pitting Daisy, a wealthy, Jewish, white woman versus Hoke, who is a black, poor, illiterate man. Initially, they are both wary of each other but the crotchety Daisy finally allows Hoke to drive her to the grocery store. They verbally spar continuously until Daisy discovers that her suspicion that Hoke was stealing food proved false. Thereafter, the frost between them starts to thaw. Daisy discovers that Hoke is illiterate and, because she had been a teacher, offers to teach him to read which is the first major step in solidifying their relationship. The remainder of the play concentrates on a melding of their ill-matched personalities. Hoke is patient, insightful, practical and a homespun philosopher while Daisy is imperious, prickly, moralistic and sarcastic. A lot of the humor comes from Daisy’s observations of people and circumstances. She is continuously disdainful of Boolie’s wannabe Episcopalian wife and her son’s tolerance of Christianity and conservative politics. Boolie even appears in a Santa Claus suit.
The acting challenge is twofold. Both Hoke (Donaldson) and Daisy (Labanz) must transform their personalities and biases as they negotiate their fluid, uneasy relationship. They have to learn to trust each other. The other challenge is to convincingly convey the aging process over more than two decades. Part of the transformation is due to acting as each character moves more slowly and more stoop-shouldered throughout the play aided by some props (canes and walkers) and increasingly older and more dowdy costumes designed by Caren Brady. Donaldson, in particular, was very effective in both transitions. LaBanz was a little uneven but still carried the day. Justin Baldwin plays Boolie as a somewhat frustrated comic relief, who tries to placate his unreasonable (in his mind) mother while countering the wily attempts by Hoke to continually increase his salary.
The primary themes include race relations in the South, religion, social status, wealth versus poverty, religious violence when Daisy’s synagogue is bombed, and the maturation of the characters. However the serious themes are conveyed in a matter-of-fact tone and not heavy handed. You don’t walk away from this play feeling lambasted.
The passage of time from 1948 to 1973 is effectively shown by an onstage video screen which shows contemporary pictures of timely events and newspaper headlines. The set is minimalist and static which reflects the initial set design of the play. Originally, for example, the “car” was represented by four chairs, two in front and two in the back. Here, Brett Bowling created two benches placed on a tiered, moveable platform. Hoke always sits in the driver’s seat, simulating the movements of the steering wheel, while Daisy sits in the back on the opposite side so the audience can see both actors. The illusion of the car is enhanced by Denny Reed’s sound effects. The remainder of the set is merely props including a desk, a living room chair and table. some telephones and pictureless frames
Based upon notes from Director Greg Procaccino, this is the most requested, non-musical play by Covedale theater-goers.
Overall, this is an excellent play which has not aged over time. It is unfortunate that the racial and religious overtones are still resonant in today’s headlines but the core and heart of the story resides in the hard-won friendship of two very different people. There were a few opening night glitches but it is a good production.
So, consider driving over to see Miss Daisy at her home at the Covedale Theater, https://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa/CurrentSeason.aspx, running through September 29.