"Driving Miss Daisy” is a durable chestnut. Alfred Uhry’s series of vignettes, warm and crusty, defies dating because it puts two likeable and remarkable characters ahead of the events that advance civil rights and depict aging, elements that texture the play but inform more than dominate it.
Amy Kaissar’s production of “Daisy” for Bristol Riverside Theater is particularly satisfying because it gives importance to the easing of racial tension and the Jewish journey from immigration to assimilation while putting the emphasis squarely where it belongs: Daisy Werthan, the once-deprived second-generation American, who, thanks to her husband’s printing business, is now well-heeled, and Hoke, the black chauffeur her son, Boolie, hires to drive her when age and technology impair her ability to run a car.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is a partnership, often a three-way deal, but in most stagings, all attention goes to the flinty, temperamental, strict, and unimpressed Daisy. She is the usual radiating point, with Hoke and Boolie being satellites to her whims and outbursts.
Not this time. Marvin Bell — in a truly outstanding performance — quietly but surely asserts the equal importance of Hoke by poignantly delivering his lines while remaining perfectly natural, doing what an actor should do in living a part rather than playing it.
In the 30 years “Driving Miss Daisy” has been peppering theater schedules, and out of the 20 or productions I’ve seen, including the original, Bell is the most rounded and affecting Hoke of all, mainly because he maintains the character’s inner dignity and subtle humor while never overplaying, pushing lines, or trying to make Hoke into a statement.
Bell’s Hoke is a man confident within himself. He is someone who has seen and coped with the world. Like all Hokes, he has witnessed a lynching, been underemployed, and had to deal with racism and ageism, but Bell congeals this experience to show a man who knows the game and how to conduct himself in it while retaining his personality. He joshes easily with Boolie, even when Hoke makes some clumsy remarks about Jews in their first meeting. He meets Miss Daisy head-on, working with and indulging her moods and irritability instead of fighting them.
Bell goes beyond Uhry’s lines to let you see the man who wants to have his own negotiations with a car dealer rather than inviting the Werthans into his personal business. His defiance of Miss Daisy during a ride from Atlanta to Mobile and his way of talking to her when she belatedly invites him to join her in hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at a Jewish event, the first integrated meeting of its kind, has heft that shows Hoke’s mettle, sensitivity, and ability to leave the employee’s role to assert himself.
The graveyard scene in which Hoke reveals he is unable to read (and Daisy utters her wonderful line about teaching “some of the stupidest children in Atlanta” to read), and the final scene between Hoke and Miss Daisy in a nursing home take on more emotion and sentiment because of Bell and his coming near tears when Miss Daisy unveils the mystery of literacy to him.
Now for some more cheering news. Bell’s stellar performance in no way diminishes the fine work Lucy Martin does as Miss Daisy. Director Kaissar has created a real tag-team match between her lead players. Bell may take more focus than Martin in this outing, but that doesn’t keep her from being an excellent Miss Daisy. The difference is you expect Daisy to glom the proceedings, and in Kaissar’s production, both get their full due.
Martin is more in line with what one is accustomed to seeing in Miss Daisy. Her fitting into a pattern doesn’t make her performance any less witty, affecting, or entertaining. It is just within a general range. It’s wonderful without being special.
Except in one regard that has as much to do with Kaissar and costume designer Linda B. Stockton. Martin is always perfectly coiffed and dressed in the manner you’d expect from a woman of Miss Daisy’s pride and stature. From Martin’s first entrance, I noted Kaissar avoided the dowdiness that often accompanies Miss Daisy. Her hair was done in the right style for its time, the late 1940s, and newly done, as would be the habit of a Jewish woman who goes to temple ever Saturday and is known in her community.
Everything about Miss Daisy’s grooming was done with taste and style. The furs she wears on a couple of occasions were just what women of her class and background would don.
Martin, as deft at line delivery as Bell, carried off Miss Daisy’s physicality with distinction. She did not play “age” until Miss Daisy was near 90, and even then, there were discipline and some spring in Martin’s carriage.
Martin also made the most of Miss Daisy’s funniest and more biting comments, especially when she spoke of her daughter-in-law, Florine. She made gold of the moment she says “Love to Florine” to Boolie by telephone, then hangs up and says, “Well, that’s the biggest lie I’ll tell today.”
Like Bell and Martin. Michael Samuel Kaplan seems at home as Boolie. He has the air of an executive who would win a Man of the Year award from Atlanta’s business community. He is warm and ironic with his mother, whom he calls a “doodle,” and justifiably abashed when Daisy speaks of Florine, especially around Christmas season.
Kaissar’s is a solid, enjoyable production with superior acting and a marvelous set by Charles Morgan, who puts Miss Daisy’s parlor at an interesting angle, uses decorative beams in a way that turns them into telephone poles in traveling scenes, and finds interesting ways to place Miss Daisy’s cars on stage.
Elsewhere in the production, Stockton’s costuming work is triumphant throughout, the bequeathed suit Hoke wears in his initial scene being as well chosen as Daisy’s wardrobe and Boolie’s more flexible apparel. Kate Ashton’s lighting adds to moods, and Amy Altadonna’s sound design nicely incorporates music from the period being depicted with ambient sounds like an ignition started or a car crashing.
Most interesting are projections on screens that border the top and side edges of the playing area. These, by Stivo Arnoczy, chronicle civil rights and Israeli history in a way that informs and enhances without distracting.
Driving Miss Daisy, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 12. $10 to $48. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.