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Camelot steers 'Miss Daisy' through deceptively poignant production

"Driving Miss Daisy," Alfred Uhry's multiple award-winning play, is deceptively straightforward. On the surface, "Driving Miss Daisy" is a sweet and sentimental look at friendship. But always present, always just beyond appearances, is the ever-present shadow of racism and prejudice.

It takes a deft hand to keep the play's genuine warmth and humor the main focus while neither losing nor overemphasizing the dark undercurrents.

Camelot Theatre's production of "Driving Miss Daisy" does just that. Intelligently directed by Paul R. Jones and starring the remarkable Shirley Patton and the equally remarkable Steven Dominguez, with the strong support of Roy Von Rains, Jr., this "Daisy" pulls no punches.

It is Atlanta in 1948. Daisy Werthan is a 72-year-old wealthy, Jewish widow. An unfortunate accident — she destroys a neighbor's garage — shows she no longer has the reflexes to safely drive her car. Her son Boolie, a prominent businessman, hires Hoke Coleburn, a middle-aged African-American chauffeur to drive her around town.

"Miss Daisy" is, at first, reluctant to allow Hoke to drive her. Over the intervening years, from 1948 to 1973, as Hoke becomes an indispensable part of Daisy's life, the two become genuine friends on an almost — but never quite — equal basis.

It is touching that Hoke becomes devoted to Miss Daisy. But, while she is truly fond of him, it is painfully obvious that she never discusses his life away from his job or asks about his family.

Racism and prejudice against Hoke is present, of course, but also against the Werthans as Jews. Hoke makes a point to Boolie that he doesn't think Jews are cheap. Daisy casually asserts that black servants take things. Boolie is careful never to appear "Jewish" among his business colleagues.

But that sort of casual prejudice is an inconvenience. It is synagogue bombings and lynchings, both of which Daisy and Hoke witnessed, that put their experiences of the emerging South into sharper focus.

Patton's Daisy is beautifully balanced between empathetic and exasperating. We can see her frustration at her loss of independence and sense of self-sufficiency and can almost sympathize with her unthinking selfishness and rudeness as her world becomes more and more constricted.

Dominguez' independent and dignified Hoke matches her performance, as does Rains' amusingly conflicted Boolie.

Production values, as always at Camelot, are professional. Don Zastoupil's spare set, with groupings of chairs, desks and the prominent "car," along with Tatiana Watkins' lighting design, keeps the action moving briskly. Donna Boehm's costumes provide a sense of place and period, as do the wigs by Virginia Carol Hudson. Brian O'Connor provided amusingly apt period music.

Uhry's play opened off-Broadway in 1987, starring Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize for dramatic writing. His screenplay for the subsequent 1989 film with Jessica Tandy and Freeman garnered an Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation.

"Driving Miss Daisy" was revived on Broadway in 2010 with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

In some ways, the gentle "Driving Miss Daisy" was a precursor of Lee Daniels' "The Butler," depicting how social awareness of inequality grew over the last half of the 20th century. Change is subtle, life goes on, and we start noticing the little things — and stop taking those things for granted. "Driving Miss Daisy" is a play about our past, our present and, perhaps, our future, with a pleasant sugar coating to make the medicine go down.

The play runs through March 2 at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $25, $23 for seniors and students (except for Sunday matinees). Reserved seating is available for an additional $2 per ticket. For details, see www.camelottheatre.org or call 541-535-5250.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at rbkent@mind.net.