The Jungle takes a ride in America's recent past with Driving Miss Daisy

Wendy Lehr and James Craven.

Wendy Lehr and James Craven.

James Craven admits he had very little first-hand experience with Driving Miss Daisy, Alfred Uhry's look at the Civil Rights movement via an older Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur. 

The original production and film caused a stir among the likes of Spike Lee, who rejected looking at the era via a white lens and were critical of Morgan Freeman for taking the role of Hoke.

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"I never saw the play or the movie until recently. It just didn't occur to me to look at it. As the years go by, things settled about the play and when I saw the movie it took me by surprise on how rich the characters were presented and how it tells the story," says Craven, who plays Hoke in the Jungle Theater's production of the show.

That early criticism focused on Hoke as "an Uncle Tom apologizer. The task to falling to the actor playing Hoke is to not be that person. Hoke existed and he exists There was and always will be that person in our society. To deny his voice is a disservice to him; to that servant class of person who is just trying to survive in life," Craven says.

Director Bain Boehlke didn't know much about Driving Miss Daisy going in, apart from the famous film version with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.

"We did a reading of it in the lobby. I found it extraordinarily moving. I felt a really unique peak into the days of the civil rights movement. What I liked so much about it is that it focused on the lives of two relatively insignificant people," Boehlke says.

Joining Craven in the cast are Wendy Lehr as Daisy and Charles Fraser as her son, Boolie.

The well-known -- and often-parodied -- conceit of the show has Daisy and Hoke sharing a car over a 25-year period. Over the years, their relationship deepens as the culture at large changes between the 1940s and '70s.

"There is something truthful about two people in a little rowboat having to cross a big lake together," Boehlke says. "The play touches on some of the more horrifying aspects of our humanity. It's small, but it reveals a much larger experience."

The structure of the play "gives you a quick little peak into five minutes of these people's lives over a 25-year period," Craven says.

Boehlke and Lehr have worked together for decades, and both have been honored with lifetime achievement awards prizes from the Ivey Awards.

"I thought it was a perfect role for her," Boehlke says about Lehr. "Then James Craven had always been one of my favorite actors. I just loved his work. I invited him over one day to ready and it was like a match made in heaven."

Hailing from Mississippi, Fraser has brought a Southern perspective to the production. "I love the play. I enjoy the gentility of it. It embraces what William Faulkner said about race relations in the South when it comes to whites and blacks. The whites will often love the individual but hate the race," he says. "In this play, there is obviously racism involved and to deny that would be foolish. I think by touching on it so delicately that I find it absolutely fascinating."

Lehr had a simple reason for liking the work. "I figured if it was good enough for Jessica Tandy, it would be for me," she says. "It's a wonderful piece that just gives up more and more of itself. It is so layered I don't think there is a bottom to the depths that you can plumb with this piece."


Driving Miss Daisy
Friday-Dec. 22
Jungle Theater

2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis

For tickets and more information, call 612.822.7063 or visit online.