Theater review: ‘Miss Daisy’ returns, fiercer than ever

A pitch-perfect blend of comedy and pathos with a strong sense of time and place, Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” remains the best play ever written about Atlanta.

And Aurora Theatre’s new black-box production — starring Jill Jane Clements as Miss Daisy Werthan and Rob Cleveland as Hoke Colburn, her chauffeur and eventual best friend — is about as fine a reading as you’ll ever see.

In case you don’t know Uhry’s 1987 play, which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and was made into a film that claimed 1990’s best-picture Oscar, it’s based on Uhry’s Atlanta grandmother. Though Miss Daisy grew up in downtown’s late-19th-century Jewish ghetto (and never forgets her bleak childhood on Forsyth Street), she later enjoyed a comfortable life in Druid Hills, thanks to her family’s business prowess.

So when she backs her brand-new Packard off her driveway embankment, her son, Boolie (Jared Simon), hires her a driver — much to her chagrin. Though Miss Daisy bristles at first — and Clements certainly captures the curled-up lip and the sullen look, the grandness and the hauteur — Hoke tolerates her. Eventually, he begins to speak his mind, and his newfound sense of power may be just what the old bird needs.

Cleveland, who has played the role of Hoke innumerable times, is marvelously subtle. The way he angles a brow, opens a door, puts his foot on the brake: These simple gestures convey volumes of meeting, not just for Hoke but for all African-Americans living in the segregated South. Uhry’s gift is to describe the crumbling of the old social order on very intimate terms.

In director Justin Anderson’s beautifully realized “Daisy,” even the most familiar scenes — the “stolen” can of salmon, Miss Daisy’s digs at her social-climbing daughter-in-law, the perilous journey to Alabama — still have the ability to make me giggle with delight. The final moments — when Hoke visits a vulnerable and diminished Miss Daisy in the nursing home — are absolutely heartbreaking.

In the years that I have been reviewing Atlanta theater, watching Clements has been a gift. A solid, hardworking performer with a masterful understanding of comedy, she’s matured into one of the city’s most formidable actresses. Though Clements is decades away from the nonagenarian Daisy ultimately becomes, she pulls it off — remarkably and without cliche.

Simon is very good as Boolie, the exasperated son and head of the family; the peacemaker and mediator; the civic titan. Simon captures the complexities of the Southern Jewish aristocrat with eloquence: His Boolie is a bit smug at first, beholden to the white power structure, later humbled by his paternal legacy.

As the city’s theater season begins in earnest, there may be glitzier shows around town, productions that will draw bigger headlines and reach more audiences. But out in Lawrenceville, there’s this — three actors, a few chairs and a bittersweet Atlanta tale that never feels like a retread. Be prepared to cry real tears.

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