Featured Story – Driving Miss Daisy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Allen Austin and Missy Handwerker star in Driving Miss Daisy at Panola Playhouse this weekend.

Cast, crew shine and deliver as story evokes smiles, tears

A review by Emily Darby Williams

Walking into the Panola Playhouse in Sardis Friday night for the opening of Driving Miss Daisy was like walking into the ‘50s in Georgia.

The play begins in the living room of Daisy Werthan (Missy Handwerker). Her middle-aged son, Boolie Werthan (Tom Womble) pleads with her to hire a driver after Miss Daisy has wrecked yet another vehicle, making their insurance rates hit the roof.

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This sets up the scenario which carries the audience through a 20-year relationship between Miss Daisy and her African American driver, Hoke Coleburn, played by 23-year-old Allen Austin of Oxford.

Austin has the role that made Morgan Freeman famous in the 1989 film version.

Freeman, who makes his home in Charleston, has sponsored this Panola Playhouse production through his Rock River Foundation. Cast and crew have hoped that Freeman will attend a performance.

Under director Lauren Fore Suddoth the three-member cast combines elements of comedy and drama to tell the story.

This performance is Handwerker’s fourth appearance at the Panola Playhouse. She was last seen as “Grizabella” in the summer production of Cats.

Handwerker could have fooled anyone into thinking she was actually 72 years old.

Batesville attorney Tom Womble, also a veteran of a number of Panola Playhouse productions, was at home on the stage in this one, as if the part were his from the beginning.

As for young Allen Austin, who is required to age 20 years in the play, I wondered, “How is this guy going to pull it off?”

But he did.

This play may be the launch of his career. He made me laugh and cry, so he did the job.

Similar prejudices

The play explores a connection between the wealthy businessman and the black chauffeur.

“Are y’all Jews?” Hoke asks Boolie as he is being interviewed for the job.

“Well, yes, why do you ask?” Boolie replies.

“I always heard Jews were stingy,” Hoke replies.

Hoke then describes perhaps the nicest man he’d ever worked for, also a Jew, disproving a stereotype.

The bond between the two characters was obvious as both of them had experienced similar prejudices.

Similar limits

The necessity of a driver for Miss Daisy is seen by her as limiting her freedom.

“Unless they have changed the Constitution, I have rights!” she exclaims.

The irony is that, in the 1950s when the play is set, her chauffeur also faces limits on his freedom.

Helping to deliver a sense of authenticity to the production, a shell of a period sedan is used as Miss Daisy’s car.

Changing the scenes back and forth from the living room to the car was accomplished quickly and efficiently by the expert stage crew which included:  Lauren and Zack Suddoth, Vic and Robin Henson, Rogers Smith, Cassidy Porter, Chad Martin, Heather and David McNutt, Phillip Frazier, Trusten Moore, Jordan Raney, Anna Grace Marshall, Nikki Fili, Emily Cockrell, Brynden Foster,  Shaquille Conrad, and Briana Patton.

Driving Miss Daisy continues this weekend with performances tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
For tickets visit www.panolaplayhousereservations.com.