Theatre Review: Carnegie's "Driving Miss Daisy" is Compelling Drama

Dale Hodges, Reggie Willis and Randy Lee Bailey sharing a stage is a promise that good things are going to happen.
 
The trio are a seamless ensemble in Driving Miss Daisy at The Carnegie through Nov. 16, with Hodges powering the action in the title role of an irascible, narcissistic widow in post-WWII Atlanta, where prejudice is as much a part of the city as peach trees.
 
Daisy gives us a lot to chew on, but the series of scenes set over the course of 25 years (as Daisy ages from 72 to 97) feels disjointed as it moves quickly through 90 minutes (no intermission). Yes, I know it won a Pulitzer Prize but I suspect what many people remember most fondly (if people know the Broadway hit of the late Eighties at all) is the Oscar-winning film version. 
 
I am a fan of this production, an unsentimental character study directed by Mark Lutwak. It’s a much better fit for the time we live in than its original sweetly tart ambience, which was like fresh lemonade on a sweltering day in the Deep South -- it went down so well it made audiences think they’d like Daisy more than they ever would in real life. 
 
Alfred Uhry’s play recounts an irritating old woman’s quarter-century relationship with her African-American chauffeur Hoke (Willis). Bailey provides solid support as Daisy’s long-suffering and endlessly patient son Boolie, necessary to trigger action and frame the passing years.
 
Most of the action take place in Daisy’s living room – an armchair, a side table with a radio (replaced by smaller and smaller updates as the decades pass, and finally with a small portable television), a coat stand. An image of a worn American flag is the backdrop, referencing difficult times in our history – Civil Rights, Vietnam – that flavor Daisy and Hoke’s long acquaintance. A suggestion of a car comes into play at the front of the stage.
 
Hodges lets us feel Daisy’s ingrained air of entitlement, her distrust, her loneliness, her inability to reach out a hand in friendship, her growing vulnerability as she ages. Willis shares Hoke just as openly. The obstacles set before African-Americans in this time and place, including the indignities of living in a Whites Only world. They both age believably.
 
It’s compelling drama as the pair settle into something that passes for comfortable but the tragedy is it could have been more, Daisy never realizes, or maybe the better word is acknowledges, that she’s her own worst enemy. A small revelation near the end never fails to dampen some eyes.
 
Daisy is a good match for The Carnegie and the credit goes to its former theater producer Joshua Steele for bringing Hodges and the play together. 
 
It’s one more inspired idea from Steele that for the last few years has made the community arts center’s theater season so much better than anyone had a right to expect. Hope that The Carnegie has the desire and will to take advantage of the foundation Steele laid.
 
Driving Miss Daisy, through Nov. 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.
 
Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts