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"Driving Miss Daisy" is Carnegie's Next Show

It’s Atlanta, 1948. Just after WWII and not long before the Civil Rights Movement.
 
Seventy-something acerbic Jewish widow Daisy Wertham is having her car keys confiscated by her put-upon son, whose solution to near-death experiences behind the wheel is a chauffeur.
 
Daisy is not pleased, and her new driver, Hoke, a wise, dignified African-American in a deeply prejudiced Deep South, isn’t impressed with her either, not her sharp tongue or her patronizing attitude. As a black man and a Jewish woman, they both face prejudices.
 
The play is Driving Miss Daisy, and the revival opening Saturday at The Carnegie in Covington is one of the fall season’s buzz shows, starring favorite area actress Dale Hodges in the title role and talented Reggie Willis as Hoke, both 25-year veterans of local professional stages. They are directed by Mark Lutwak, a name you may not know but should. 
 
The play that has become an American classic (with a recent Broadway revival) is about the 25-year relationship between Daisy and Hoke, how they grow dependent on each other by grudging degree through major events in their individual lives and the world around them. 
 
Race relations and their evolution is an underlying theme, as is prejudice that is far wider than racial. 
 
Daisy and Hoke have suspicions and assumptions about each other, but as a black man and a Jewish woman in this time and place they both face prejudices.
 
Daisy plays out in a collection of scenes that cover a quarter-of-a-century. Lutwak notes, “The world we live in today — its politics, its social fabric, its culture — rest on the changes that took place during these years. 
 
“These changes are the terrain in which these characters live and interact. Their drama has to do with how they struggle with themselves and each other, but also with the world around them. One hundred years from now, when we (the future we) look back on our time, we will probably see it as part of the same arc that includes those 30 years. Issues of race and class are still playing out.”
 
Hodges, whose credits include Broadway and 25 years on Cincinnati’s professional stages, took the role because “It’s a stretch for me. I don’t want to repeat myself. It gets harder as you get older.” British-born Hodges agrees with Lutwak about the play’s larger, historic landscape – “It says a lot. A lot of this country’s history is in it, presented in an un-sentimental way.”
 
But it’s the personal story of “Daisy” that resonates most for Hodges. “Aging speaks to all of us,” she muses. “I am old enough to be very aware of a desire to retain independence.”
 
If you know Driving Miss Daisy from the Oscar-winning film (including Best Picture), the stage version will be a happy surprise. 
 
“This is a well-known play,” Lutwak said, “or at least people think they know it because of the film. 
 
The film carries a great deal of warm-hearted sentiment — the cranky, old semi-racist white lady is softened by the patient attentions of the kindly black servant. In the end they become friends. At least that’s how most people remember it.
 
“From the beginning, we strove to keep these characters honest, to their times and place. To me this play is not a romance of friendship trumping race and class. It’s a tragedy about people who cannot quite escape their culture & history. Daisy and Hoke cannot quite escape their circumstances. They do not have the capacity. The heroism and triumph that this play evokes revolves around how hard they try, even as they fail.”
 
Driving Miss Daisy, Nov. 1-16. The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 adults, $18 students. 859-957-1940 and www.thecarnegie.com
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts