Walnut Street Theatre’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts by Kari and RJ Rothstein

After recently hearing that Driving Miss Daisy is a play that contains the “presence of love,” that statement caused the mind to begin searching the script for evidence. Who shows love and to whom and how? Love is a big topic and be it romantic or platonic. People have discussed love in theatrically from the beginning of the arts form’s inception. Alfred Uhry’s quiet contemporary masterpiece finds itself at the center of another conversation about love stemming from the Walnut Street Theatre’s new touring production. Audiences will be treated to expertly guided journey through these characters lives by the talented cast and well-appointed production.

Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and Wendy Scharfman. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and Wendy Scharfman. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Driving Miss Daisy tells of the 25-year relationship between he an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur. Set in the backdrop of Georgia from 1948-1973 the audience is treated to a slice of Americana that deals with the difficult issue of prejudice. This examines many of the different trappings of prejudice and shows how the characters grow and develop through them. This play has now become an iconic film that most audiences may know better as a film than as a play. While the film was better able to flush out very minor characters and better display a change of scenery and of course driving, the beauty of the play is in the simplicity of the story and the beauty of Ulry’s language.

When dealing with a work that has reached huge success in film the burden is not just on the script of the play to make the audience forget the film, rather that burden falls to the actors. Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, and Dan Akroyd created the film roles of Daisy, Hoke, and Boolie and those performances have been highly praised and highly parodied, cementing them as part of contemporary cinema’s zeitgeist.

200-driving-miss-daisyThe actors in the Walnut Street Theatre’s production faced the difficult task of telling the story and creating performances that felt unique. We’re very pleased to say that all actors met this charge in creating authentic and moving performances. Johnnie Hobbs Jr. created a Hoke Coleburn who was full of pep and vinegar, sparring with Daisy and spurring her to change her ideas. Billy Van Horn’s Boolie Werthan, Daisy’s son, was bombastic and compassionate, just as one might imagine both a successful Southern businessmen and a caring son would have been in Georgia in the 1950s. Wendy Scharfman’s performance as Daisy was truly remarkable. She created in Daisy a woman who is very difficult and almost mean at times, yet her determination, spirit and heart kept the audience caring and falling in love with Daisy as a character. All three actors did a marvelous job of modifying their speech and posture as the story progressed, truly transporting the audience with the authenticity of their movement.

Walnut Street Theatre’s Director and Producing Artistic Director Bernard Havard helms the production with an eye toward both the love stories told and a firmly established historical timeline.

While Kari enjoyed the set design by Andrew Thompson and thought that it was interesting particularly in regard to it’s almost storybook like framework, RJ found it distracting. We both enjoyed the lighted icons that showed the different settings, but RJ found the rest of the backdrop out of place. Perhaps the biggest distraction was the arrangement of the black curtains that allowed many peeks into the backstage area, where both actors and stagehands were clearly visible. The lighting, designed by Shon Causer, was appropriate and accented the work well. Julia Poiesz’s costume design did an excellent job of progressing with the characters through their own personal ages and the different eras of the script. The sound design, by Cory Neale, was plagued by a few glitches, but was well thought out and enhanced the work.

One of the perks of seeing Driving Miss Daisy is the beautiful original music composed by Ralph Waldman. The right music can lift a show from good to great and the music of this piece enriches the whole of the work.

Bill Van Horn and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Bill Van Horn and Johnnie Hobbs Jr. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Driving Miss Daisy is a valentine for the world about love. Love between a mother and son. Love between friends. Love that grows from where enmity and fear used to thrive. Love that transcends time, race or other boundaries. Is Driving Miss Daisy a traditional, romantic love story? Perhaps. But, whatever kind of love the script is talking of it is truly a work that is about the presence of love and how it motivates people to action.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Walnut Street Theatre’s Driving Miss Daisy played for one-night-only on Friday, February 7, 2014 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts-4373 Mason Pond Drive, in  Fairfax, VA. For future events, check their events calendar

Kari and RJ’s website The He Said She Said Experience.


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