It’s winter on Cape Cod, and thankfully our talented local thespians aren’t among the snowbirds who have departed for warmer climates. That’s especially good news for the Barnstable Comedy Club, which is currently presenting “Driving Miss Daisy.”
It only takes three performers to stage this heartfelt and spirited play, but all three parts are demanding in their own ways.
It’s the story of a 25-year friendship between a stubborn elderly Jewish widow and the black chauffeur her son hires to drive her places after she has a car accident. The play spans the years between the late 1940s until the early 1970s and includes historical events from those years, most notably the 1958 bombing of Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta by white supremacists, and a 1964 dinner in the city honoring Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The play opens with Daisy Werthan and her son Boolie arguing about her deteriorating driving skills. Boolie wants his mother to have a chauffeur and doesn’t understand her objections, since several of her friends have them. Daisy already has a housekeeper, Idella, who comes in several times a week. None of this reasoning is enough to move Daisy, who values her independence and her privacy and above all is concerned about other people thinking she is “putting on airs.” Nevertheless, Boolie hires Hoke Colburn, a middle-aged black man, and assures him that although his mother may be “a little high strung,” she can’t fire him.
It takes six days before Daisy finally acquiesces and reluctantly allows Hoke to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly, the same amount of time “it took the Lord to make the world,” Hoke comments to Boolie from a pay phone in the supermarket parking lot.
The friendship between Daisy and Hoke develops slowly and is tenuous, but it becomes obvious that despite their many differences, they have some important things in common.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is not a fast-moving play. It’s evident that the playwright, Alfred Uhry, who based the play’s three characters after his own father, his grandmother and her driver, chose every line deliberately. Strunk and White would be proud of this one: there are no unnecessary words.
Karen McPherson, well-known to theater-going audiences on the Cape for her portrayals of everything from a blue collar worker from Southie to an aged pirate, says in the program notes that Daisy Werthan is her favorite role. She gives the role just the right amount of spirited stubbornness and vulnerability. When she declares to Hoke toward the end of the play, “You’re my best friend,” it leaves a lump in the throat.
Ron Williams is likewise excellent as the no-nonsense Hoke. “You needs a chauffeur and Lord knows I needs a job. Now why don’t we leave it at that?” he says matter-of-factly when Daisy declares for the millionth time that she doesn’t need a driver, she was raised to do for herself, and she’s not rich. Mr. Williams stays even-keeled throughout multiple outbursts from Daisy. In one moving scene he breaks the news to her about the bombing in the temple. When she muses out loud that the incident must have been an accident because who would do such a thing he tells her, “You know as good as me who done it. Always the same ones.” Hoke then goes on to tell about the lynching of the father of one of his friends when he was a boy. “You go on and cry,” he says, assuring her that he knows just how she feels.
James Ring plays Boolie, the exasperated adult son trying to do what’s best for his mother whether she likes it or not. Not only does he try to keep the peace between Daisy and Hoke, but also between his mother and his wife who, although never seen on stage, seems present in several of the play’s scenes. Finding balance as a Jewish businessman in the South is also touched upon in a scene where Boolie turns down the opportunity to attend the dinner for Martin Luther King.
It can’t be easy for three actors to indicate a passage of time as great as 25 years but Mr. Williams, Mr. Ring and Ms. McPherson handle the challenge. The stage at the Barnstable Comedy Club, which sometimes seems large even for an average-size cast, seems just right for this play with one-half of the stage set as Daisy’s living room and the other as Boolie’s office. The cars Daisy and Hoke drive in are two simple chairs set to the left of the stage. It all works well and alleviates the need for scene changes.
The performers earned a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night. “Driving Miss Daisy” will continue through Sunday, January 26. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 2:30 PM.