Some theater productions require myriad bells and whistles to be successful, but some need only simple stage decorations and a few great actors to achieve greatness. Dallas Theater Center’s latest, Driving Miss Daisy — playing at Kalita Humphreys Theater through November 16 — falls firmly in the latter category.
But if you look closely at DTC’s version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, you’ll see that the proceedings are deceptively simple. This play is as highly choreographed as a great musical, with intricate entrances and exits that are as crucial to its success as any other part of the production.
The acting makes Driving Miss Daisy as memorable as any DTC production in recent memory. The interplay between the three actors is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end.
The story is well-known, thanks to the Oscar-winning film version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Annalee Jeffries, subbing beautifully for an unavailable June Squibb, plays the aging Daisy Werthan, who is forced to give up driving by her son, Boolie (James Crawford), after one too many close calls. Against Daisy’s wishes, Boolie hires an African-American chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn (Hassan El-Amin), who slowly but surely worms his way into Daisy’s heart.
Using a basic, two-story rotating set featuring a couple of staircases, a small structure with two doors and not much else, director Joel Ferrell and his team manage to conjure a variety of different settings, including Daisy’s home, Boolie’s home, the car Hoke uses to drive Miss Daisy and more. It’s a master class in set design by Peter Hicks, as it gives the audience just enough information to let their imaginations run wild.
What might be surprising for anyone who hasn’t seen the play or movie in a while is playwright Alfred Uhry’s subtlety when addressing racial relations and tensions. Although much of it is right there on the surface, nothing is ever shoved down the audience’s throats. A big reason Daisy, who is Jewish, and Hoke bond is because of differing degrees of otherness in mid-century Atlanta. Their evolving relationship touches on many elements of racism in the South, and not one bit of it feels false.
Without the right actors to make the most of the material and the set, the play might not work. Jefferies, El-Amin and Crawford are as nimble as cats as they come and go from the stage. Transitions from scene to scene are accompanied by the stage rotating, often multiple times, and any little stumble might ruin the feelings that play engenders; thankfully, that never happens.
But it’s first and foremost the acting that makes Driving Miss Daisy as memorable as any DTC production in recent memory. The play is set over 25 years, and not only do the actors convincingly age their respective characters – with help from makeup and costumes, of course – but they do so with aplomb.
The interplay between the three actors is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end, and each gets to shine individually. El-Amin, so good in A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park and Les Miserables, burnishes his growing local status here. He makes Hoke into a wise, funny and eminently relatable character.
Jefferies is his equal in every way, as her Daisy stands toe-to-toe with Hoke and Boolie. Without the right kind of performance, Daisy’s personality transition over the course of the play could seem forced or cheesy. But Jefferies has both an ease and strength about her that lends truth to every line.
The role of Boolie is just as important to the play as Daisy or Hoke, as he often serves as a bridge between the other two. Crawford intuitively understands how hard to push in each of his scenes, and his performance helps the play maintain its emotional intensity throughout.
As I’ve said before, for a theater company to be equally skilled at staging the over-the-top blast that was The Rocky Horror Show and the quiet brilliance of a play like this is nothing short of amazing — and a gift for Dallas. Whether you’ve experienced this story many times before or are coming to it for the first time, you’ll never forget DTC’s version of Driving Miss Daisy.