By Dan Hagen
How appropriate that the play Driving Miss Daisy should cap the 2015 summer season here, because the venerable Little Theatre is the venue that integrated the town of Sullivan.
“The first African American actor Guy Little hired was an Equity actor from New York, Michael Wright, who, ironically, was from Shelbyville, a somewhat larger town 20 miles southeast of Sullivan,” wrote Beth Conway Shervey in her book, The Little Theatre on the Square: Four Decades of a Small-Town Equity Theatre.
“Collective memories of people in Sullivan in 1961 recalled either a sunset law on the books or an unspoken rule that no black man would be caught in Sullivan after the sun went down, much less spend the night,” Shervey wrote. Wright did, of course, staying with a local couple. “Rumor also had select area residents threatening to blow up the theatre or close it down for good. Not only did nothing like this happen, it never rose above gossip.”
Jibby Florini — the owner of Jibby’s restaurant, once the “Sardi’s of Sullivan” — headed off any racial confrontations. “(Wright) came in here, and I had to stop a couple guys from going over and challenging him,” Florini said. “They wanted him thrown out and so on.”
Little went right on hiring not only black actors but black stars to appear at the Little Theatre — Butterfly McQueen, who appeared in 1967’s Showboat, and Isabel Sanford, who appeared in 1977’s And Mama Makes Three.
“Since the demise of the star system, the theatre has continued to hire African American Equity actors, apprentices and techies,” Shervey noted.
And that tradition continues today with Little Theatre newcomer Bryant Bentley, an Equity actor playing chauffeur Hoke Colburn to Little Theatre veteran Glory Kissel’s Miss Daisy Werthan.
The 1987 play, directed by David Caldwell, is the first and most famous of Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy, dramas focused on white Jewish Georgia citizens in the early 20th century.
After a fast-paced season of flashing feet in five musicals, it’s a nice change of pace to relax with a straightforward drama. This is solid material, both comedic and poignant, and the three Equity actors in the show know how to mine it for full value.
Most people are familiar with the story from the movie version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. In 1948, a 72-year-old wealthy Jewish widow — a woman who thinks she isn’t racially prejudiced, but is — can no longer drive but wants no help from the black chauffeur her son has hired for her.
The play covers their personal history from 1948 to 1973, with national history as a backdrop, while the help she didn’t want becomes the friend she can’t do without.
Kudos to scene designer Ryan Zirngibl for the subtly evocative set — two backdrops framing large open oval entranceways, one of faded flowered wallpaper peppered by picture frames, the next suggesting lace or a gazebo. And more plaudits for sound designer Ryan Hopper. The incidental violin and cello music that links the swiftly shifting scenes was especially effective. Timmy Valentine’s costumes were varied and tasteful, managing the tricky task of being eye-catching without being distracting.
Jesse Sharp — superb as Gomez in The Addams Family — has the fairly thankless expository role of Daisy’s son Boolie, and seems to play it as gratefully as any leading part in a musical. Sharp is funny and always genuine here, so much so that we may even feel a little sorry for him. His mother loves him, but treats him in an offhanded manner that would hurt a less devoted child.
Because Daisy’s best friend, finally, is not her son but Hoke. Bentley plays the role with less deliberate slowness than Freeman, but a comparable likeability. Watch him mime starting a fine automobile, and you’ll recognize the enjoyment lighting his eyes.
This is that rare dramatic story in which all three principals are quite decent people, brought into conflict only through cultural misunderstanding and personal blindness.
Miss Daisy mistakenly accuses Hoke of the theft of a can of salmon and won’t allow him to stop the car to answer the call of nature until he finally stands up for himself. She perhaps hurts him most when she refuses to recognize the connection between the bombing of her Jewish temple and the lynchings Hoke has seen. The attackers are always the same people, as Hoke tells her.
He sees through her, tolerates her and cares for her until she can allow herself enough perspective to see him as a man and her best friend. The best parts of the show spotlight their teasing companionship.
“Did you have the air-conditioning checked?” Miss Daisy nags. “I told you to have the air-conditioning checked.”
“I had the air-conditioning checked,” Hoke replies. “I don't know what for. You never allow me to turn it on.”
The much-loved Kissel gets a star turn here, conveying utter vulnerability as she sits frightened in that car amid the night sounds, waiting for Hoke to return. Kissel ages into fragile, halting senility before your eyes, then bounds on stage for her curtain call. Acting, baby!
Incidental intelligence: “Driving Miss Daisy” runs through Aug. 23, and has lighting design by Chris Benefiel and production stage management by Jeremy Phillips. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.