“Driving Miss Daisy” Still Touches The Heart As New Jewish Theatre Continues Season

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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy tries to listen in as Eric Dean White as Boolie and J. Samuel Davis as Hoke have a discussion in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Spanning 25 years and a lot of emotion, Alfred Uhry’s heart-wrenching story “Driving Miss Daisy,” still delivers the goods. At New Jewish Theatre, we’re in for a treat as Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer trods the boards once again in the title role.

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Kathleen Sitzer as Daisy does her best back seat driving as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke listens in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Proving she’s still got it, Kathleen Sitzer gives a moving portrayal as Daisy Werthan. As the play opens in 1948, she’s 72 years old and recovering stubbornly from an automobile accident with the old Packard. Her son, Boolie, insists she get a driver because the insurance company will no longer allow her to drive. She adamantly refuses but Boolie hires a black driver named Hoke Coleburn who spends most of his first week on the job sitting in the kitchen while Daisy takes the streetcar everywhere she needs to go.

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Hoke listens respectfully as Daisy does her best to lay down some ground rules in the NJT production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eventually giving in- with reservations and a list of rules for behavior- she allows Hoke to drive her to the temple and to the Piggly-Wiggly as long as he stays with the car and doesn’t try to help her (although she allows him to bring the groceries into the house). What starts off as a begrudging and suspicious relationship for Daisy eventually blossoms into a life-long friendship that leads to a touching finale in this 90 minute one-act.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke is interviewed by Eric Dean White as Boolie in “Driving Miss Daisy” at New Jewish Theatre. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Two local, great gentleman actors make the most of their roles, making the characters sympathetic and understanding without too much of the schmaltz that can often ruin this gentle, nurturing play about crossing boundaries of understanding and trust. J. Samuel Davis is absolutely brilliant as the gentle natured Hoke. With quiet exasperation, he kindly leads Daisy along to an acceptance of both her circumstances and his intrusion on her privacy. It’s a low key yet animated performance that is probably the most realistic portrayal of Hoke I’ve seen that matches both the manners and mores of the time period while showing his wise grasp of humanity.

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Eric Dean White as Boolie listens as J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tells him about a turn in Miss Daisy’s health in “Driving Miss Daisy” at NJT. Photo: Eric Woolsey

Eric Dean White is a powerful force in Daisy’s life as son Boolie. He lets her keep her independence while still maintaining a presence in her life and trying to protect her without hovering. He and Hoke also share a bond as they protect this grand lady (who turns 97 by play’s end). But the tear-jerking finale shows what progress can be made that leads to a very special friendship between Daisy and Hoke that you realize is very rare indeed.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga plays on the sympathy and tenderness that Mr. Uhry has fashioned in “Driving Miss Daisy” but avoids the sloppy sentimentality that can turn it saccharine. It’s a lovely piece that brings a real tear to the eye. The set design of Dunsai Dai is a perfectly place two level set that features Daisy’s parlor upstage along with Boolie’s office off to stage right. The lower level features the mock up of Daisy’s new Oldsmobile symbolized by a front and back seat, steering wheel mechanism and two large “headlights.” It’s simple, unobtrusive and effective. Add the pinpoint lighting design of Mark Wilson and the whole play unfolds with little delay between scene and time changes.

The costumes of Michele Friedman Siler are on the mark and the fascinating sound design by Zoe Sullivan fits right into the historical perspective of the play. A shout out to Nancy Bell as well as the dialect coach who keeps them all on the Southern  drawl of the Atlanta gentry over the decades.

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J. Samuel Davis as Hoke tries to calm down Kathleen Sitzer’s Daisy in the New Jewish Theatre production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Photo: Eric Woolsey

“Driving Miss Daisy” gets a lot of stage time in our town. As a matter of fact, my old group- Hawthorne Players- just staged it within the last couple of months. But it’s a beautiful and near-perfect play so I guess we can’t really get too much of it. Enjoy this exquisite version at New Jewish Theatre through December 18th. Contact NJT at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information.

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