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Strong 'Daisy' revival drives home its relevance

Saul Elkin, commenting in his director's notes for the Jewish Repertory Theatre's fine revival of Alfred Uhry's 1987 award-winning play, "Driving Miss Daisy," praises the playwright for having written this American classic story, this subtle history lesson, this little love story, with "humor, dignity and sincerity." Not bad for openers.

Uhry, also a wordsmith with Broadway-musical credits -- among some successes, he did have a clunker that opened and closed on the same night -- grew up Jewish in Atlanta. He has memories: "Jews were sort of white people but not exactly -- we were out of the loop, too," he recalls. "Jews were second class, blacks third." And so "Daisy," a gently manipulative, instructive and entertaining tale of an unlikely friendship between an aging Jewish widow and her black chauffeur, guides us through 25 attitude-changing years, 1948-1973, with Vietnam, the words and wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement as background. Uhry understands the mix. It works.

When we first meet dowager Daisy Werthan, she's 72, beginning to dotter and lately a menace behind the wheel: last week she wiped out a garage and a hedge. Her businessman son Boolie -- loyal, careful, concerned, with a social-climber wife -- hires a sixtysomething black driver, Hoke Colburn, against Daisy's will. Daisy and Hoke clash from the start, she the textbook back-seat boss, worrying about the perception that she's "putting on airs," he muttering pointed barbs along with his "Yes, ma'am."

Hoke drives Daisy to the Piggly Wiggly, to temple -- later bombed, in a shocking wake-up call for Daisy about changing times but no shock to the wise Hoke -- and sometimes to strange places. Alabama, for instance. Daisy is lost in reverie on the way to Mobile. Hoke: "Did I ever tell you about the first time I left Georgia?" Pause. "A few miles back," he zings. They learn much from each other. Neither admits it, though.

There's a succession of luxury cars hinted at -- the regal Hudson, the classy Olds, a Packard, finally a Cadillac -- clothing styles, home furnishings change, time passes. Daisy, in her 90s now, more aware of the world because of Hoke but an uneasy inhabitant, slips into dementia, the house is sold and a nursing home beckons. She's still feisty, with good days and bad. Hoke, a bit wobbly himself, visits often, soothes, whispers "Now, Miss Daisy" when she rants. "You're my best friend, Hoke," she rasps. Two diverse people have connected, looked into each other's heart and liked what they saw. "Driving Miss Daisy" remains delightful, still feels right, its universal appeal intact.

Old pros Sheila McCarthy and Laverne Clay star and spar. Both are wonderful here -- the eminent Clay has played Hoke several times over the years -- both know the value of a teachable moment or a silent rebuke. McCarthy is stellar; Clay is world-weary but wise.

Expatriate Stan Klimecko plays Boolie, who could be unlikable, with humanity. Director Elkin has infused the night with his usual unerring sense of story, mood and pace.

Set changes are many, in truth disturbing the flow somewhat. The "car" -- seats, a steering wheel, clever and central to everything -- comes and goes, exchanging spots with a chair here, a desk there. Maybe some rethink is necessary. Maybe set designer Ron Schwartz has already tried alternatives. But, "Driving Miss Daisy" will survive. It always does.

***

"Driving Miss Daisy"

3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Presented through May 27 by Jewish Repertory Theatre in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville.

Tickets are $10-$32. Call 688-4114 or visit www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com.