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Review: With these accomplished actors, GCP’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ makes a fine road trip

THEATER REVIEW

Man, can she play cranky.

When last we saw Mary Piona on stage, a little more than a month ago in “Good Company for Christmas,” she was dressed in a Frosty the Snowman costume and cracking groan-worthy holiday jokes with enough finesse to land a Netflix comedy special. (And why not? Just about everyone else has.) So it’s a jolt to see her so soon afterward in “Driving Miss Daisy.” As the stubborn, prim and occasionally grumpy title character, Piona can be as gruff as a cafeteria lunch lady policing the salad bar.

Pictured above: Billy Anderson, Mary Piona and Ed Burke star in ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ Photo: Good Company Players

But she also finds her character’s gentle and introspective side. What I like most about the new Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre — a revival that comes 25 years after the company debuted the title — is how director Denise Graziani and her fine, small cast embrace the sentimental pull of the material but don’t let it become too syrupy.

Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award-winning 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and the Oscar-winning 1989 big-screen version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, struck a cultural chord at the time. The tale of a cranky, older, white Jewish woman who becomes deep and abiding friends with her black chauffeur offered a dose of healthy optimism about race relations.

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With a story that picks up starting in the 1940s, there’s a sense in “Driving Miss Daisy” of moving forward as the decades fly by in terms of cultural enlightenment. Things are getting better, the playwright tells us.
Playing opposite Piona is a sensitive and funny Ed Burke, who is reprising his role as Hoke Coleburn, the chauffeur, from the original GCP production. Burke is a little older and wiser in the role — just a little — and gives a touching, memorable performance. This is one of those occasions when it’s impossible as a viewer to forget the personal backstory that an actor brings to a role. Watching Burke relive this part is a tender, meaningful part of the production in itself.

The small cast is rounded out by a strong Billy Anderson as Daisy’s son. There’s nice chemistry when the three actors are together, suggesting a real family on stage.

Costume designer Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed offers some vivid period outfits for Daisy. There’s nice work by sound designer Mallory Creasy and lighting designers Joielle Adams and Evan Commins, particularly in the driving scenes.

I’m usually a fan of scenic designer David Pierce’s work — and of minimalist settings in general — but this production is a rare miss for him. The car is fine, but the rest of the set, dominated by black curtains and consisting of a few hanging panels on either side of the stage representing Daisy’s house and her son’s office — seem a little desultory.

How was “Driving Miss Daisy” aged over the years? I’m mixed when it comes to the answer.

There’s a lot to be said for the play’s emphasis on personal relationships. (And this is where it’s fun to see prominent local actors in crisp form.) Stereotypes and prejudice are best broken down at the individual level. As Daisy gets to know Hoke better, the give-and-take between them becomes more equal.


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There’s nuance here, too. Economic class is an underlying secondary theme. No matter how close they become, Daisy is Hoke’s employer, and their relationship reflects that power dynamic. In what is to me the most affecting moment in the play, the pair are on a road trip, and Hoke tells Daisy he needs to stop for a bathroom break. Irritated because they are behind schedule, she flatly says no. He flat-out tells her how inhuman it is that one person could presume to tell another when he can “make water.”

Still, the play’s sentimental (and some would say simplistic) side can be a bit much.

Overall, it’s sad to say, but racial discrimination and strife are still far too relevant issues in our culture today. I believe it’s harder to look at the optimistic message of the play today with the same level of idealism as when it was written.

At one point, Daisy says brightly that attitudes toward race are evolving for the better. In an uncharacteristically dour moment, Hoke replies, “Talk about things changing. They ain’t changed all that much.” Twenty-five years later, as we take in the tenor of our own times, that should gnaw at all of us.


Show info

‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ a Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre. Opens 8 p.m. Friday, Jan.4, and continues through Feb. 24. Tickets are $20 general, $18 students and seniors.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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