Encore Michigan

Drive to Tibbits for “Miss Daisy”

Review June 18, 2016 Marin Heinritz

COLDWATER, Mich.–Aging widow and retired school teacher Daisy Werthan is an ornery, stubborn, self-reliant woman who carries her losses and hardships with pride even though she enjoys a certain level of privilege as a wealthy Jew in 1948 Atlanta. She’s been in charge for as long as she can remember until the time comes when she can no longer drive. When “colored man” Hoke Coleburn is hired by her son Boolie to be her chauffeur, all three of their lives are forever changed.

This is but the first of many turning points that create touching moments of connection in Alfred Uhry’s touching Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 play, Driving Miss Daisy, beautifully produced as this season’s opener at Tibbits Summer Theatre.

The play is one of a trilogy in which Uhry draws on his experience growing up Jewish in Atlanta to tell a larger story of bigotry, race relations, and cultural shifts in the 20th Century American South that is both poignant and funny. The brilliance of the writing and strength of the characters transcend stereotype and material that could otherwise feel sentimental and tired. And this sweet production does the script justice with excellent performances and effective technical choices.

Diana Wilde as Daisy and Joel Diggs as Hoke age beautifully and convincingly both physically and vocally over the 25 years of their relationship shown on stage. Together they have wonderful chemistry that shifts and changes through time, and their timing is impeccable. She is handed a much more animated character, but he holds his own and quietly emerges as her perfect match in every way. Craig Hammerlind, too, plays the supporting role of Boolie with just the right touch.

Together, they build the foundation that ultimately emotionally hooks the audience—the final scene evokes well-earned genuine misty eyes.

In addition to Suzanne Marie Ogden’s excellent casting and direction, so many other good choices make this production succeed. There are no clunky scene changes; in Danial Thobias’s set design, all spaces are present at once on stage, with the car(s) made up of four chairs on two levels with a steering wheel down stage right; Boolie’s office/home on a platform up stage right with shifts in lighting and costumes to differentiate the two; Daisy’s home center and stage left; and an old-fashioned upright rotary phone down stage left to signify a telephone booth used in various scenes.

It’s a wonderfully creative and interesting use of space highlighted by Aaron Lichamer’s lighting design that, among other delightful effects, transforms the exposed brick backdrop into a night sky. Instrumental interludes of original music by Robert Waldman also effect pleasant shifts that allow for seamless transitions.

In one of many critical tirades from Daisy toward Hoke, she suggests his failing eyesight is affecting his ability to drive. “How you know the way I see unless you look out my eyes?” he says in defiance. And this kind of exchange that shows their mutual respect and reciprocity amid tumultuous times while also expressing a larger truth about their differences is what makes this play and excellent production both relevant and real.

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