'Driving Miss Daisy' at Bristol Riverside: A play with much to say in 2017

'Driving Miss Daisy' at Bristol Riverside: A play with much to say in 2017

In a time of social division, Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Driving Miss Daisy is a play that, though not new, still has much to say about the way we Americans do, don’t, and could get along.

So how does Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play scan? In director Amy Kaissar’s hands, this production focuses less on the humor and more on the healing power of friendship.

Uhry’s play begins in 1948, with 72-year-old Daisy Werthan (Lucy Martin) crashing her car through a neighbor’s garage as she backs it out of her driveway. Her son Boolie (Michael Samuel Kaplan) hires an African American chauffeur named Hoke Coleburn (Marvin Bell) to drive her on her daily errands and social schedule.

Over a series of vignettes that span 25 years, Hoke and Daisy’s daily lives chronicle an era of change, both in the Atlanta where Uhry sets his play, and in the greater South that once stood in the way of social and cultural upheaval. Stivo Arnoczy’s projections on the sides and top of the enclosed stage show the more striking events: the desegregation of schools, the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights marches led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the progressive electoral victories in Atlanta, of first a Jewish mayor, and later an African American to that post.

These events set the borders on the moving portrait of friendship painted by BRT’s production. At first resistant and cool to her new driver, Daisy evolves toward reliance and acknowledgment of vulnerability. Hoke’s initially placating, slightly deferential attitude gradually moves toward greater respect for himself and greater concern for Daisy. It’s a very talky play, with the actors sitting in chairs all night, whether in a living room or in a car; it could be a recipe for dramatic disaster. But Martin and Bell turn in powerful performances that lend Driving Miss Daisy a sense of momentous import. The pair’s chemistry creates a small corner of hope and warmth, within both Charles Morgan’s spare set design (of an elegantly furnished Southern home) and the tumultuous era as a whole.

The enclosed set and awkward blocking in the first scenes muffle the dialogue a bit, and Kaissar dampens the comedy to drive home the drama. Some of Hoke’s and Daisy’s retorts deliver big laughs, but Kaplan as Boolie, although he conveys some touching moments of familial affection, struggles to realize the humor in his exasperation with his mother’s antics.

Twenty years removed from its original production, Uhry’s play is still powerful. A production like Bristol’s suggests an alternative to a recent popular election slogan: Make Americans Get Along Again.

Driving Miss Daisy. Through Feb. 12 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets: $10-$48. Information: 215-785-0100 or brtstage.org

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Published at Tue, 31 Jan 2017 19:54:21 +0000

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