Young people today might find it hard to believe, but life in America in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t quite the way it was depicted in the legendary television comedies “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” That’s especially true if you lived in a Southern city such as Atlanta, where longtime racial restrictions were rigidly enforced – and where people “knew their place.” That’s the America Alfred Uhry explores in his 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Driving Miss Daisy,” now onstage at The Box Theater in Downtown Mount Clemens.
The year is 1948, and 72-year-old Daisy Werthan has just wrecked her three-week-old Packard. (For you young folk, that was a luxury car built right here in the Motor City until 1958.) Given her age and deteriorating driving skills, Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie – a successful local businessman – hires a man against her wishes to be her chauffer. At first, the haughty and proud Miss Daisy wants nothing to do with the 12-years-younger Hoke Colburn. Yet despite their differences – he’s black, uneducated and working class; she’s Jewish, a retired teacher and wealthy – the two spend the next quarter century together and discover a loving bond that unites them rather than separates them.
Uhry’s beautifully constructed script unfolds at a leisurely pace and pulls no punches when it comes to addressing the complex issues of race, religion and prejudice in American society. While some may feel uneasy with references to “colored men” and the dropping of the dreaded “n word,” Uhry’s dialogue instantly transports us to the American South of the mid-20th century and reveals a truth no one can deny: solid and long-lasting relationships can be forged between two people despite their obvious differences – and despite the restrictions imposed upon them by society.
In the intimate, storefront space of The Box Theater, “Driving Miss Daisy” is served well by director John Forlini’s decision to stage a “low key” production, as patrons are no more than two or four rows away from the action – which makes the experience similar to sitting in Miss Daisy’s living room and personally experiencing the story unfold as an invited guest in her home. As such, the emotions must be subtle and far more realistic than what you’d find in a much larger venue. And that’s certainly what Forlini delivers through actors Orson Wingo as Hoke and Connie Cowper as Miss Daisy.
Wingo makes an impressive debut at The Box, delivering a subtle performance that’s as dependant on his facial responses as they are his line delivery. (You always know what Hoke is thinking, despite what he’s saying.) In particular, he’s crafted a thoroughly believable and sympathetic character with diction, pronunciation and physical characteristics that perfectly define Hoke’s life in mid-20th century Atlanta.
Cowper, who’s won rave reviews for her work elsewhere, also makes a strong and impressive debut at The Box. It’s not easy to believably age a character 25 years without resorting to tricks such as wigs and make-up – and even more so when the range is 72 to 97. But Cowper does so with grace and class. And she, too, reveals much through her eyes – especially in the show’s closing seconds that neatly tie together everything the playwright was striving to say.
Completing the cast is Mark Konwinski as Boolie.
Opening night was plagued with technical problems that ranged from a misbehaving light board to a computer shutdown midway through the show. A few hiccups at inopportune times generated laughs, others slowed the pace of the show and one even startled an audibly surprised Cowper. (It didn’t help that a handful of scene changes are a bit too slow even without the technical snafus.)
But once the rough edges are driven out, the result will be a slick and memorable ride that teaches a lesson in the power of people over politics – a lesson we still haven’t mastered in the second decade of the 21st century!
‘Driving Miss Daisy’
What’s That Smell? Productions at The Box Theater, 51 N. Walnut, Mount Clemens. Friday-Sunday through March 31, plus Thursday, March 22. $16. 586-954-2311. http://www.theboxtheater.com