MTC’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ Tugs at the Heartstrings

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Photo by Joe Landry
Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. Photo by Joe Landry

By Karen Isaacs

Albert Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy which is getting a very nice production at MTC in Norwalk through Feb. 22 is a feel-good play.

It is hard to imagine that most theater goers have not either seen a production of the play or seen the movie, about the two incompatible outsiders who form an unlikely friendship.

But in case you have forgotten, we have Miss Daisy an widowed retired schoolteacher who has just crashed her new car.  Her son, a successful business man, decides that given the accident the perfect solution is to hire a “Negro” man to drive her.  This is set in the Atlanta area in the late 1940s.

She is appalled at the idea — of another person in her space (though she does have a housekeeper that is there several days a week) AND that her friends might think she is wealthy OR “putting on airs.”  After all she remembers a less affluent childhood.  But the reality is that she is well-to-do though maybe not “wealthy.”

Mike Boland and Lorenzo Scott. Photo by Joe Landry
Mike Boland and Lorenzo Scott. Photo by Joe Landry

Her son, Boolie goes ahead with interviewing and hiring Hoke, an older black man with a gentle nature.

At the beginning, Miss Daisy is totally resistant, often walking while Hoke follows in the car.  She is also a backseat driver, trying to tell him routes and speed–slow is best.

If Hoke is an outsider — Atlanta is still segregated, so are Boolie and Miss Daisy: they are Jewish.

The one act, 90-minute play covers a lot of territory moving from the late ’40s to 1973. So what we get are episodes.  Miss Dasiy calling Boolie to accuse Hoke of eating (stealing) a can of salmon, to a synagogue bombing, a formal banquet featuring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as speaker, a trip to Alabama and other incidents.  Sometimes they feel like they are pulled from the headlines of the period.

But the real focus of the play is the developing friendship and understanding between Miss Daisy and Hoke.  They are of similar age and they are both outsiders.  When she realizes Hoke cannot read, the teacher in her emerges and she teaches him.  As they both age, she realizes that Hoke is her best friend.

The theme of acceptance and tolerance is obvious, but what makes this play touching is also the aging of the characters.  Particularly as we grow older, it resonates more and more with each member of the audience.

Kevin Connors, the artistic director, has directed this piece with a sure hand.  He has not let it become maudlin or saccharine.  Each of the characters has annoying aspects of their personalities and he lets them emerge.

Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. Photo by Joe Landry
Rebecca Hoodwin and Lorenzo Scott. Photo by Joe Landry

The set by David Heuvelman creates a variety of flexible playing spaces which suggest Boolie’s office, the car, Miss Daisy’s living room and other places. He is aided by the lighting by Tyler H. First and the costumes by Diane Vanderkroef.

For the two main characters — Miss Daisy and Hoke — the challenge is to age and to age at an appropriate pace.  Given that the play covers 25 years or so, neither must become too frail too fast not stay too robust too long.

In this production, Lorenzo Scott as Hoke seemed to manage these difficult transitions best.  His Hoke captured the man who has lived most of life viewed as a second-class citizen yet maintains his own dignity.  He also displays a true understanding of Miss Daisy.

Rebeccas Hoodwin as Miss Daisy gives a very good performance, but at times her aging process seemed a little “off” – it was all the same for too long.  Hoodwin is an unconventional Miss Daisy in terms of appearance; the role is often played by performers who are slight of built which undoubtedly makes the aging process easier.  Hoodwin is tall and just looks robust.  That she convinces us of her transition to truly elderly and frail is an example of fine acting. She also shows us Miss Daisy’s feisty side — she is used to being in charge — as well as her tender moments.

Mike Boland, as Miss Daisy’s son Boolie captures his affection for and at times his irritation with his mother. He is a truly caring son.

Connors needs to address just one issue in the new MTC theater;  he often had actors entering or leaving the stage through the exit to the lobby and as the door opened, the audience was distracted by the bright lights and at the matinee, I saw, the ambient light from the lobby windows.  It broke the mood.  If entrances and exits are going to use the lobby there should some way of minimizing that light.

I”ve always debated whether final scene — when Hoke and Boolie visit Miss Daisy in a nursing home, obviously somewhat confused —  is necessary or just an overly obvious tug at the audience’s heart strings.  Either way it is handled well in this production.

Driving Miss Daisy is an enjoyable theatrical experience that audiences — even young ones — will enjoy.

It is at MTC, 509 Westport Ave., Norwalk. For tickets visit MTC.

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