On opening night of Venice Theatre’s season-closing production of Driving Miss Daisy, the biggest laugh of the evening (an unintended one) came early on, when Daisy Werthan’s son, Boolie, tries to talk her out of driving after an accident. After all, he tells her, “You’re 72 years old.”
Since many of the audience members, who had presumably driven themselves to the theater, are that age and then some, it served as a reminder that things have certainly changed since 1948, when that opening scene is set, and even from 1987, when Alfred Uhry’s prize-winning play debuted. But as we age, we can all still relate to the fear Daisy (Suzanne Coccia) has of losing her treasured independence.
Autry Davis, Suzanne Coccia and Mike Gilbert in Venice Theatre’s Driving Miss Daisy.
So we empathize even as we see her initial unpleasantness to the chauffeur Boolie (Mike Gilbert) hires for her, a black man a few years younger than Daisy herself, Hoke (Autry Davis). At first Daisy won’t even let him drive her on errands around Atlanta, and when she does she insists on giving instructions and, in general, treating him like a child.
But as any who have seen the show or the film version before know, over a period of more than 20 years, Daisy gradually comes to realize that Hoke is not merely her servant, but her friend. And we glimpse, in this intimate story, a wider view of the societal changes that swept through the 1950s and 1960s in America.
Under the direction of VT artistic director Murray Chase, Gilbert, Coccia and Davis all give nicely nuanced performances, gathering the expected laughs from certain guaranteed lines and situations (often when Hoke, portrayed with professional skill by Davis, is managing to best Daisy or Boolie) but also achieving some poignancy, especially as both Daisy and Hoke face the diminishments of old age while trying to maintain their dignity. The play occasionally moves a little too slowly, even for a piece that depends so much on establishing the right reflective mood; and the placement of an intermission feels awkward. (The play is sometimes performed without one.)
But for a show that I’ve seen numerous times, and one that is certainly predictable, although polished, to begin with, this Driving Miss Daisy was surprisingly effective. It continues through May 20; call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com for tickets.