By Clare Myers
Watching Annalee Jefferies command the stage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, you would never know she was not the original actress cast for the role. Just weeks before opening night, Academy Award nominee June Squib dropped out of the title role in the Dallas Theater Center (DTC) production of “Driving Miss Daisy.” Jefferies was tapped to take her place, and as the lights came on at the show’s opening last Friday, all eyes were on her.
And they stayed there. Jefferies’ performance as the obstinate and irritable Daisy Werthan was the highlight of a truly excellent production.
Alfred Uhry’s play, which was originally performed in 1987 and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, tells the tale of Daisy, an elderly Jewish widow, and Hoke Colburn, her African-American chauffeur, and the relationship between the two from 1948 to 1973. Set in Atlanta, the plot incorporates aspects of a changing society in which anti-Semitism and the Civil Rights movement play a role in daily life. But the story focuses primarily on the deep friendship that develops between Daisy and Hoke as the elderly woman ages and loses her independence over the course of a few decades.
Director Joel Ferrell shows his versatility here; the DTC associate artistic director is also currently directing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “Driving Miss Daisy” moves forward as a series of scenes separated by well-placed voiceovers of famous speeches that keep the audience aware of the historical context. The tracks play as the set, a clever, versatile structure based around a staircase, rotates in the dimmed light.
In a few parts, the action seemed slightly rushed, but the poignant closing scene is generously paced, allowing a natural sweetness between the two main characters to seep through.
The three actors elevate the production to an impressive level. James Crawford, who plays Daisy’s son Boolie with warmth and energy, is the weakest link in the cast, and his main flaw is a somewhat distracting accent. As Hoke, Hassan El-Amin is exceptional, bringing an unassuming depth to the character.
But it is Jefferies who steals the show. The actress expertly manages the role, leading her from a deliberately harsh woman to a complex character who loses none of her willfulness as she grows lovable. Jefferies and El-Amin work well together, making the tender friendship believable. Their dedication and investment is powerfully evident, and when late in the show Daisy tells Hoke he is her best friend, a line with an absurdly high potential to be cheesy, sounds genuine. The duo portrays their characters uncompromisingly and with authenticity. By studiously avoiding tacky sentimentality, they earn every bit of the fictional pair’s sweetness.
“Driving Miss Daisy” is superb. It is thoroughly enjoyable and engaging, and at 85 minutes with no intermission, it never drags. The show runs through Nov. 16, and for those interested, tickets start at $18. I would highly recommend it.