Theatre Guild Valdosta’s “Driving Miss Daisy” revival remains a tour-de-force production.
Through a series of vignettes set in Atlanta from the late 1940s to mid 1970s, audiences are treated to seeing the progression of a friendship between the white Daisy Wertham, who should no longer drive herself, and the black Hoke Colburn, who is hired by her son, Boolie, to serve as chauffeur.
These three characters are the only players in this intimate show. Each character is portrayed beautifully by the same cast that originally inhabited the roles in TGV’s 2005 and 2009 productions of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Robert Hatton returns as Boolie, the straight-forward but put-upon son of Miss Daisy. Hatton wears this role with grace, ease and comfort. The crux of the show remains the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, but it is far more obvious in the stage play than in the movie that it is Boolie who serves as the bridge between Daisy and Hoke. Hatton brings a fine sense of timing and patience to Boolie, making him a sympathetic character.
Joanne Griner and Dr. John Gaston respectively play Daisy and Hoke. They retain a magical connection to these characters and their interplay with one another as Daisy grows more tolerant and accepting, and Hoke’s character becomes more assertive and sure.
Griner invests Daisy with feisty charm. A woman whose attitudes are slow to change but eventually adapt to accepting new possibilities and developing a new friendship. Griner, who is 80, plays the aging Daisy with a one-two-three punch of verbal jousting, facial expressions and a mastery of movement as Daisy progresses from the starting age of 72 years old to nearly 100. A masterful performance.
Gaston performs similar feats with the aging of Hoke, whom he ages effectively, not just in the evolution of slower movements, but in the set of his face with a pinched expression of mouth and cheeks. Yet, the true evolution is the way in which Gaston unravels Hoke’s dignity, like the slow unfolding of a mighty flag. In the beginning, Hoke barely looks Boolie in the eye and readily accepts whatever amount is offered to drive the cantankerous Daisy, but Hoke becomes a man who insists on being treated as a man. As Hoke has spent his life eking out a living with few viable opportunities, he mentions late in the play that his granddaughter is a college professor; it is a small line that speaks volumes. In the program notes and in his performance, Gaston pays homage to the good men who persevered the hardships of America’s racial history. Gaston is the recently retired dean of Valdosta State University’s College of the Arts. In the program, he notes that had it not been for the sacrifices of the past generations of Hokes, there would have been no Dr. John Gaston. A brilliant portrayal.
Respect lies at the success of all three performances. While funny, while eccentric, while having comic lines, each performance is delivered with a respect for the character. As the show progresses, the characters earn each others’ respect.
Show director Mary Helen Watson invests a great deal of respect into this show, for these characters, and for the audience. Using minimum sets, she allows the show to develop at a smooth pace, nothing rushed, but always moving forward. Allowing audiences to connect certain dots through the power of suggestion, Watson lets the story and relationships of “Miss Daisy” unfold like a steady drive through a familiar town, which brings everything home in the end.
This review is based on the dress rehearsal performance Wednesday evening.
Theatre Guild Valdosta’s “Driving Miss Daisy” plays 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 23, 24; 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25, The Dosta Playhouse, 122 N. Ashley St. More information, reservations: Visit www.theatreguildvaldosta.com