Review: Post-Pandemic DRIVING MISS DAISY at Cumberland County Playhouse Gains Renewed Vigor

Seemingly ubiquitous on Southern stages, Alfred Uhry's Sentimental and Nostalgic Play Still Engages Audiences

By: Jul. 14, 2021
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Review: Post-Pandemic DRIVING MISS DAISY at Cumberland County Playhouse Gains Renewed Vigor
Patty Payne and Michael Ruff in Driving Miss Daisy

One of the most glorious attributes of the theater is the experience of seeing a play you know quite well due to multiple productions over the years and to somehow find it fresh and invigorating, as if it is the first time all over again. Such is the case with Alfred Uhry's seemingly ubiquitous Driving Miss Daisy, which has been presented in countless productions of varying degrees of professionalism since its 1987 debut.

Beautifully written and endlessly evocative of the times in which it is set, Driving Miss Daisy is not, however, without its detractors, but if you approach it for what it is - sentimental, but not mawkish; nostalgic, but not reverential - it gives audiences a glimpse into the realities of a particular time in our country's rather recent history, providing a collection of snapshots of the slow but steady evolution of the modern-day South.

Now onstage at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse through August 5, in a sparkling production helmed by director Britt Hancock and starring a trio of the Playhouse's favorite and most acclaimed actors, Driving Miss Daisy is as entertaining and as thoughtful as it has ever been.

Review: Post-Pandemic DRIVING MISS DAISY at Cumberland County Playhouse Gains Renewed Vigor
Jason Ross

There is nothing particularly new or innovative about this current revival at Cumberland County Playhouse - sure, Hancock and his exceptional ensemble of players (Patty Payne, Michael Ruff and Jason Ross, all of whom are veterans of the CCP stage, having given audiences the gifts of their talents over many years) bring the characters to life with vigor and charm. It's not to be unexpected, of course, since this is not their first time to bring Uhry's uniquely Southern script to life onstage. Rather, the trust among the three actors permeates the theatrical atmosphere and a dropped line or missed cue goes unnoticed due to their calm and rational approach to the familiar material.

Performed against the backdrop of Jill Hassberger's beautifully appointed set that is illuminated by Sam Hahn's atmospheric lighting design that helps the audience to remain focused from scene to scene, the 2021 iteration of Driving Miss Daisy is tempered by the awareness of racial inequities and white privilege that have come into sharper focus over the past few years. But rest assured, here in the South we have been acutely aware and cognizant of the work which still must be done to create a fair and equitable society for all people. And in its own gentle way, Driving Miss Daisy has been prompting people to do that work since 1987.

Hancock's deft directorial hand is felt throughout the play, guiding his knowledgeable cast through the paces of Uhry's episodic comedy-drama that can make you cry as easily as it makes you laugh. Set in Atlanta between 1948 and 1973, the story of the widowed and well-heeled Jewish matron Daisy Werthan and her working-class African-American driver Hoke Colburn won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its artful consideration of the changing opinions of its tumultuous period.

Driving Miss Daisy is the first part of Uhry's "Atlanta Trilogy" that includes the Tony Award-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade. One thing that strikes me particularly about this production is the memories of Atlanta it can bring back with certain words or a turn of phrase: reminiscences of Avondale Dairy, Mayor Hartsfield, Euclid and Highland Avenues - all have the ability to whisk you back to those times and places with unfettered ease.

Review: Post-Pandemic DRIVING MISS DAISY at Cumberland County Playhouse Gains Renewed Vigor
Patty Payne and Michael Ruff

As the eponymous Miss Daisy, Patty Payne is, quite simply, superb and thoroughly believable, and the onstage chemistry between her and her co-stars is palpable. Michael Ruff is endearing and eminently watchable as Hoke, the loyal chauffeur who becomes the best friend to his employer over the course of years, and his authenticity lends itself beautifully to his characterization. Jason Ross is the quintessential Southern son who loves his mama dearly and, in the process, he creates an indelible impression as Boolie Werthan.

Over the years, lord knows, I have seen countless versions of Driving Miss Daisy - some good, some otherwise - so many that it often seems the actors are phoning in their performances, going by rote rather than actually connecting with their audiences through their now iconic characters. Maybe it's the post-pandemic euphoria of returning to the theater that left me tearfully engaged and waxing nostalgic about dear and departed family members of my own after seeing this fine production, but I prefer to credit it to the sense of magic, the ability of artists to transport me to another time and place that is a hallmark of good theater. Whatever the reason, Driving Miss Daisy is well worth your time. Try not to miss it.

Driving Miss Daisy. By Alfred Uhry. Directed by Britt Hancock. Stage managed by Kayla Jenkins and Katy Fagiolo. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through August 5. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).


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