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'Driving' lesson; Elkin emphasizes civil rights backdrop of familiar drama

"Driving Miss Daisy," Saul Elkin wants you to know, is not merely a pretty tale about a hard-won relationship between two unlikely friends. Nor is it some misty-eyed chronicle of an era long past.

For the Jewish Repertory Theatre co-founder, who directs a new production of Alfred Uhry's 1987 classic opening Thursday, the play's lessons extend far beyond the bounds of a single friendship.

"It's a surprising play. Everybody knows it, everybody knows the film. But people I've talked to were unaware of the background against which this little story is told," Elkin said. "This is Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement. It's not really a play about that, but it's the background against which this action occurs."

JRT is returning to Uhry two years after its popular production of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," about a Southern Jewish family in the lead-up to World War II. Both plays are part of Uhry's acclaimed "Atlanta" trilogy, and both set personal conflicts that might be viewed as somewhat romanticized against a roiling political backdrop, as if to disarm audiences while slyly delivering a social message.

"On the surface, it's a touching story about a Southern Jewish matron and her black chauffeur and how a relationship develops between them. But at the same time, during the course of the play, the temple Miss Daisy attends is blown up. Hoke, the chauffeur, tells a story of a lynching he witnessed as a boy," Elkin said. "Woven into this otherwise semi-romantic story are some harsh realities, and I like that. And they don't present themselves in a sort of political way, but they're there. They're part of the fabric of the play."

The production features Sheila McCarthy as Daisy Werthan, a proud and stubborn elderly Jewish widow, and Laverne Clay as Hoke Colburn, Daisy's equally proud and no less stubborn African-American chauffeur. The play portrays a series of vignettes spread across three decades, during which their relationship thaws into a deep mutual respect and the battles of the civil rights movement play out in the background.

Clay, who has played the role twice before and directed the play on the stage of the Paul Robeson Theatre, sees Elkin's directorial approach to the show as unique.

"He sees little things that I'd say the other directors didn't see or didn't think were important," Clay said, referring to Daisy and Hoke's conversation about the synagogue bombing. He also praised the simplicity of the production, which features a minimum of scenery and maximum opportunity for the audience members' imaginations to fill in the gaps.

"Of course he's sitting on a folding chair and she's sitting behind him on another folding chair, but they are in this car. And they're going places and carrying on conversations," Clay said.

At its heart, whatever political messages are embedded in the subtext of "Driving Miss Daisy," the show runs on the simple beauty of its central relationship.

As Clay put it: "Here's two people, very diverse in their beliefs and everything else, their religion and all that, but they come to care about each other."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW    

WHAT: "Driving Miss Daisy"    

WHEN: Thursday through May 27    

WHERE: Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, JCC Benderson Family Building, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville    

TICKETS: $30 to $32    

INFO: 688-4114, Ext. 334 or www.jewishrepertory-theatre.com