Driving Miss Daisy thrives at the Jungle

Michal Daniel

You may find scripts that are more intriguing and insightful over the next couple of months, but you will be hard-pressed to find a production with better acting, directing, and design than the Jungle Theater's Driving Miss Daisy.

Under the gentle but thorough direction of Bain Boehlke, a trio of talented performers crafts deep and rich characters who smoothly travel through 25 years of their lives in an era that saw tremendous social change in the South.

Wendy Lehr and James Craven — two longtime top talents in the Twin Cities acting community — serve up nuanced and tremendously deep performances as Daisy and her longtime chauffeur and eventual best friend, Hoke. Charles Fraser, who plays Daisy's son Boolie, may not have the experience of his co-actors, but his performance shows a similar mixture of care, humor, and depth.

Driving Miss Daisy makes up the first of a trilogy of plays by Alfred Uhry about the Jewish experience in Atlanta during the first part of the 20th century. The later pieces of the trilogy, The Last Night at Ballyhoo and especially the musical Parade, have richer textures and insights, but there is meat under the first play's seemingly simple exterior.

The story, familiar in large part because of the film starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, follows Daisy, a 72-year-old retired school teacher who, after a disastrous trip in the car, is forced by her concerned son to hire a chauffeur.

That chauffeur is Hoke, a middle-aged black man who has a lot of experience but also has trouble finding work in the years after World War II. Daisy doesn't want him — partially because she doesn't want to put on airs, partially because she hates the thought of losing her independence — but she eventually warms to him, and the play traces their quarter-century together.

Uhry's script is best when it focuses on the central relationships, with the unspoken tensions about race, class, and religion always near at hand. There are times when the larger world interrupts their drives — such as when Daisy's temple is bombed, or a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. lays bare the feelings and limitations of the characters — but the plot mainly moves to the rhythm of day-to-day life, played out over many years.

The script provides intriguing characters and challenges for the actors. The cast takes those opportunities and runs with them. Lehr and Craven use the spare details of the script to craft fully realized characters. When we first meet Hoke, Craven gives him a solid and dignified bearing that never disappears, even as age robs the character of most of his sight. Yet Craven lets us see the playful side of Hoke, from the joyful walk he uses after getting the driving job to the way he banters with Daisy throughout the show.

Lehr's skills are equally on display, as she takes her character from a vibrant 72-year-old woman to one who is nearing 100 by the end of the play. Her increasing age comes out in subtle ways — a hitch in her step here; a slight tremble there — but it is thoroughly convincing.

Their interplay is the heart of the show, and even though it is often presented in a static form — most often in the car, with Hoke in front and Daisy in the back — the performances are so arresting that this is hardly noticed.

Fraser doesn't have nearly as much stage time, but his character is as fully realized as the main duo. His character's own hopes, concerns, and flaws are brought out slowly through the play, as the actor adds them all to the rich texture of his performance.

That simple but rich texture is seen throughout the production. The main setting (designed by Boehlke) — the car that Daisy and Hoke share for many years — is realized by a row of four straight-backed chairs, a simply designed steering wheel, and a wicker basket.

Boehlke's direction shows the same restraint, using simplicity and the talents of his actors to bring out the play's deeper significance, one car ride at a time.

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