Atlanta 1948: “Negro Policemen to Patrol City Streets—They are ordered not to arrest white people” This is an actual headline featured in the multimedia of Bristol Riverside’s Driving Miss Daisy.
It is the post-war South. She’s 72, white, rich, annoying and Jewish. She needs a driver. He’s black, but needs a job. Thus begins one of the most revered relationships in modern theater. Alfred Uhry’s play, inspired by his own experience, began in a tiny Off Broadway theater, won the Obie, the Pulitzer Prize, and later spawned an acclaimed “Best Picture” film, a recent television revival, and a limited run star-studded Broadway revival.
Bristol Riverside’s production, directed by Amy Kaissar, and starring Lucy Martin as Miss Daisy, with Marvin Bell giving his fourth regional theater rendition of Hoke. The simple story reveals how two Southerners, both products of their time, move from tolerance to profound need and friendship. Both characters are convincing Southerners, she imperious, and yet willing to listen and learn, he proud, witty but never subservient in a very servile occupation. They age together believably. This successful rendering will deepen as the run progresses. Author Uhry has provided obvious conflicts in the opening scenes, (she doesn’t want a driver, and also has various buried prejudices), as well as a knockout ending which the actors play beautifully. The central scenes are much more subtle, (the kind of interchange that movies do so well with close-ups), and these will certainly become more specific as the run progresses. Michael Samuel Kaplan brings comic relief in the only other role, Mrs. Daisy’s son. He is surprisingly effective as he explains to his mother how business interests prevent him from supporting civil rights.
Linda B. Stockton’s costumes accurately reflect the changing times as the play moves through the 50’s into the civil rights era. The set design, projections and lighting (Charles Morgan, Stivo Arnoczy, Kate Ashton respectively) are an interesting challenge. Driving Miss Daisy is a small chamber work; but is here performed in a house that has effectively performed large-scale musicals. (The recent Broadway revival was criticized for attempting to remake a string quartet into a full orchestra.)
Designer Morgan has effectively made the set more intimate by building a smaller inner-stage with a new proscenium made of attractive Victorian gingerbread trellises. Surrounding this stage is a movie screen that projects films, headlines, photos, wallpaper, and occasional sound bites from the various eras. When Miss Daisy is driven, we see actual automobile footage of the old south, and watch as the early 50’s cars change design as the play moves into the 60’s. The effect actually creates a sort of highway hypnosis in the back row, which makes the actual play seem larger than it actually is.
Older patrons will probably find this history lesson intrusive. Driving Miss Daisy possibly had its best rendering on a tiny Theater Row stage that left patrons to find the era’s history in their own experience. However, younger viewers who are not as familiar with our country’s unsavory history may find the play, in this presentation, enriched by the slides and films.
Bristol Riverside Theatre is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. Driving Miss Daisy is certainly recommended, but is probably best enjoyed from the first five rows. Alfred Urhy’s Driving Miss Daisy has certainly earned its place as an American classic.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Driving Miss Daisy plays through Sunday, February 12, 2017, at Bristol Riverside Theatre -120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.