‘Miss Daisy’ a warm, wonderful end to GSC season

Lindsay Crouse as Daisy Werthan and Johnny Lee Davenport as Hoke Coleburn in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Gary Ng

Lindsay Crouse as Daisy Werthan and Johnny Lee Davenport as Hoke Coleburn in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Gary Ng

GLOUCESTER — Many theatergoers earlier in the year circled the last production of the Gloucester Stage Company’s 34th season as an event not be missed.
That’s because it was GSC’s production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” with acclaimed actors Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport, whose performance in last year’s “Master Harold” at GSC was one of the theater season’s highlights.
The good news is the event we were waiting for was indeed worth waiting for.
Crouse, who has spent many summers in Gloucester and the Cape Ann area and has been a regular presence at GSC since 2007, completely disappears into the persona of the sharp-tongued Southern Jewish widow named Daisy Werthan, a retired Atlanta schoolteacher whose beliefs and attitudes are slowly changed by her quarter-century relationship with an illiterate black chauffeur named Hoke Coleburn, played by Davenport, all against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement.
As the play opens in post-war Georgia, some of it seems quaint to us today — the notion, for instance, that someone at age 72 would give up driving, when we Baby Boomers are convinced that 72 is the new 62 — but the premise is grounded in what was the norm 65 years ago.
Robert Pemberton has starred at GSC in earlier productions in some intense roles, but here he is an affable and agreeable Boolie Werthan, the perpetually-put-upon son of Daisy who hires Hoke to be his mother’s chauffeur after Daisy demolishes her new Packard.
The scenes as Boolie interviews Hoke and Hoke stresses his credentials with Jewish clients and his own personal beliefs about Jews are funny and poignant at the same time.
Daisy, of course, is irate that Boolie has taken her off the road, detests the idea of a chauffeur and exiles Hoke to the kitchen for almost a week
Daisy is not a perfect person. She is not above gossiping about neighbors and friends and when she falsely accuses Hoke of stealing, she is embarrassed and humiliated
Davenport has to walk a very fine line as Hoke, accommodating and friendly, deferential and respectful , but retaining his dignity and pride and never turning into a caricature.
He holds Daisy accountable for the slights and insults she piles up in the way she treats him, and shows her her attitudes and beliefs may not be quite as noble and liberal as she portrays them.
Take the scene when Hoke reveals he can’t read, and Daisy scoffs at the idea she can’t teach him.
“I have taught some of the stupidest children in the county,” she says before realizing what she’s said.
But slowly, surely, the two learn from each other, and a quite unlikely friendship becomes an endearing one.
“Daisy” also benefits from a superb job in production values, including resident GSC designer Jenna McFarland Lord’s gracious Southern home, Gail Astrid Buckley’s costume design and, I assume, possible input in the makeup and aging process.
That allowed Crouse and Davenport to age gracefully in tandem over the quarter-century.
It is also clear that nonpareil director Benny Sato Ambush — who also directed last summer’s ’Master Harold” at GSC — has a winning relationship with Davenport. Dialect Coach Amelia Broome has ensured the Georgia drawls are spot-on and consistent, but never so broad as to obscure dialogue.

If you enjoy “Miss Daisy,“ you might also appreciate other works by Uhry written about Jewish life in the Deep South, including “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” given an excellent production recently by the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company, and the musical “Parade,” performed locally by Speakeasy Stage Company, among others.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is a wonderful, warm way to end GSC’s 34th season. Enjoy it and the beautiful Rocky Neck section of Gloucester before you declare the summer over.
The Gloucester Stage Company production of Alfred Uhry‘s “Driving Miss Daisy,” through Sept. 22 at the Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. http://www.gloucesterstage.org.

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