By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
The Little Theatre of Alexandria once again has cast their latest play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” so perfectly, the audience can simply relax and go on this sweet ride down memory lane. Just let the superb actors, Patricia Kratzer as Daisy, Joel Durgavich as Boolie, and Kevin Sockwell as Hoke, do the driving as you relive that difficult period in our country’s history while reveling in the beauty of the timely prose written by Alfred Uhry.
Uhry wrote about his own Jewish, Atlanta-born, widowed grandmother, Lena Fox, and her chauffeur Will Coleman, in a tight (just about 75 minutes) play that holds up well even today—and is especially relevant now in light of today’s political atmosphere. It was first produced in 1987 and won him a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988. But enough background for now, your only job this evening is to examine a politically volatile time—from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970’s (1948-1973 specifically).The story begins with a rather large crashing sound of a car in peril of its life and the lights come up in a rather well-to-do (or so we are told) living room in Atlanta. Daisy Werthan (72) insists to her businessman son, Boolie, that it was the car’s fault, not hers, since she is now driving a Packard instead of her old, reliable LaSalle. Boolie will have none of it and hires an unemployed African-American man, age 60, to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly and the synagogue. Miss Daisy wants no such thing but as time moves on the crotchety former teacher and Hoke Colburn, her driver and a former milkman, form a bond.
The years move quickly, through discussions of civil rights upheavals and allegations of prejudices of the time, with Miss Daisy and Hoke bantering and arguing, but ultimately respecting each other’s opinions.
Hoke says he is happy to work for Jews, since in his experience, they are “not the cheapskates people say they are,” and Miss Daisy accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon from her pantry (she knows exactly how many cans she has at any given moment), and tells Boolie that “they all take things.” Hoke about that time enters with a replacement can of salmon because he knew he was supposed to eat what the cook prepared for lunch, but it was dry, so he took a can of salmon to eat and was returning it. Boom. The years fly by until Miss Daisy is 97 and in a nursing home and Hoke visits his old “best friend” for the last time.
Performances by all the actors are very affecting, even while voicing petty injustices, but the audience’s sympathies are always with Hoke (a masterful Kevin Sockwell), who is strong and patient but who refuses to let Miss Daisy walk all over him. He even learns to read under her watchful eye. Miss Daisy’s (the cranky but ultimately lovable Patricia Kratzer) wardrobe by Jennifer Johnston and Carol Jean Clark is becoming and perfect for each time period—the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The hats, dresses, shoes, coats, and even bathrobes (there were a lot of quick changes between scenes) were right on point. If I were to suggest any change in this production, however, it would be to perhaps slow it down a bit and let the audience take in each scene a little longer. Let us breathe and become oriented to each new time period. The rapid scene changes, though they keep the pace up, are a little too abrupt to truly believe that so much time has lapsed between scenes. Also, occasionally the hats, hair, and clothing sometimes could have benefitted from a little more time for adjustment.
The set is minimal, straightforward and to the point. The director, Jim Howard, told me that the car we see onstage (and though quite bare bones is well constructed and recognizable as a car), was actually made up of parts of the five cars owned by the Miss Daisy character during the years covered by the play. The crew, at Jim’s direction, painstakingly located the steering wheel from a vintage Packard and other car parts from a LaSalle and the five cars she drove during her lifetime. They also constructed a mid-century-looking telephone booth with a real telephone from that era! I wondered where in the world one would go to find a phone booth of that age (which looked totally real to me) and Jim said proudly, “We made it!” He SHOULD be proud. Everything onstage reads as if we had actually stepped into that day and age.
I learned, too, that Patricia Kratzer is a veddy proper Brit! But you won’t hear it, because of the amazing work she has done to perfect an American sound for her role. The original production was produced off-Broadway and ran for three years with the formidable Dana Ivey playing Miss Daisy. I actually went to college, sang in the college choir, and acted onstage with Dana Ivey, whom Alfred Uhry had in mind for the role of Daisy when he wrote this play. Dana, who is from Atlanta and a friend of Uhry’s, is the best character actress I’ve ever seen, and Patricia Kratzer looks very similar to Dana and I suspect her performance would stand up well to Dana’s, which I wish I could have seen.
This is an interesting evening of provocative theatre, which should stimulate some conversations about how we really haven’t learned the lessons of the past and how history seems to be repeating itself in some very ugly ways. Sigh. But hope springs eternal in this reviewer that, as long as we have productions like this which encourage us to look at those hard lessons learned, maybe things will improve! Go see for yourself!
The Crew: “Driving Miss Daisy” is produced by Carol Strachan, directed by Jim Howard, stage managed by Melissa Dunlap and Margaret Evans-Joyce. The set is designed by John Downing, with lighting by Marzanne Claiborne, sound design by Lynn Lacey, costumes by Jennifer Crier Johnston, hair, wig, and makeup design by Susan Boyd, properties design by Michelle Hall, and video design by Michael J. Baker, Jr.
Performance and Ticket Information: “Driving Miss Daisy” runs through September 30 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, Va. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. For tickets visit: www.thelittletheatre.com or call 703-683-0496.