'Driving Miss Daisy' is truly heartwarming

KEARNEY — Critics often use the term “heartwarming” as a way to describe a sincere attempt at telling a story. This play accomplishes that goal — and so much more.

Crane River Theater’s production of “Driving Miss Daisy” warms the heart of viewers by telling the huge story of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s through a highly personal lens. A compelling script, written by Alfred Uhry, combined with powerful acting and strong direction results in a heartwarming and stellar theatrical production worthy of attending.

Part of Crane River Theater’s “Destination Series,” the comedy/drama opens today and continues through Sunday with performances at 7 p.m. through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Director Steve Barth wisely chose the Classic Car Collection as the venue for the show, carving out an intimate performance space in the cavernous building with seating for about 200 audience members. Every seat puts the audience close to the action of this Pulitzer Prize-winning show.

Beyond the staging and the story, “Driving Miss Daisy” works so effectively because of cast members Lois Thalken, Lorenzo Scott and Bryce Jensen. As Daisy Werthan, Thalken projects an air of privilege and expectation that slowly evolves into a fully realized human being, someone who learns from her insensitivities. Thalken plays the silences with as much effect as her lines, sometimes telling the audience reams of information about how Miss Daisy feels without speaking a word.

As Hoke Coleburn, Lorenzo Scott reveals the growth of his character as he asserts his emotions into his daily life, something that happens over the course of the story. Scott defines the character of the chauffeur slowly and honestly. He plays the role with a certain simplicity that invites audience members to understand his rank in a highly organized society, one that often defines limitations and limits expectations.

The playwright tells the story of an aging Southern belle who gives up driving at her son’s request. Daisy Werthan’s son, Boolie Werthan, played by Bryce Jensen, serves as a touchstone for the story, the character who changes the least during the arc of the story. He sees his mother as just another detail requiring attention during his hectic day as the owner of his family’s business.

Boolie hires Hoke to drive his mother’s car. The story highlights the relationship between Boolie and Miss Daisy over 25 years as they grow and change. Part of the delight of this production comes from how we notice the changes. The introduction of a cane for Miss Daisy alerts us to her growing physical instability. A casual comment about scratches on the car reminds us that even Hoke grows older and less able to perform his daily duties.

How this warms the heart of the audience comes from the personal relationships that the play reveals, layer by layer, between Miss Daisy and Hoke. This relationship fits neatly into the history of the social upheaval of the times. A bombing of a Jewish temple — the temple in Atlanta where Miss Daisy worships — allows her to connect with the injustice that Hoke experiences each day. She deals with the tragedy on a superficial level but we can see how Thalken, in her role, internalizes the events — and how those events cause changes in her relationship with Hoke.

As director of the play, Barth knows how to paint a powerful picture with just enough scenery to suggest the interior of a fine automobile, how to shape the scenes with music and sound effects that give the audience enough information to fill in the details, and how to leave empty places for the performers to express themselves beyond words. This play exudes power, nuance, control, depth, personality and growth — exactly the same qualities that we look for in ourselves, the same qualities that define the best aspects of “heartwarming.”

In such a cavernous setting, the sound of the performers easily gets lost. Each cast member wears a wireless microphone, but the headsets detract from the gentleness of the show, creating a tradeoff for performing in nontraditional venues. The voices coming from the loudspeakers allow the audience to hear and understand the words, but it seems to clash with the intimate quality of the play.

“Driving Miss Daisy” invites the audience to join a world of impending social conflict as seen through the lives of two participants who struggle with the changes. The three outstanding performances by Thalken, Scott and Jensen helps to bring the story to life, creating a theatrical experience of the highest quality.

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