VERSAILLES — Beth Kirchners return to The Woodford Theatre as a guest director of Alfred Uhrys Pulitzer Prize-winning play Driving Miss Daisy is a welcome reminder of her skill.
Kirchner served as artistic director of the theater since the mid-1990s and oversaw its transition into the Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, where it has flourished for years, before retiring in 2010 to pursue other projects. After her successor, Steven J. Arnold, resigned mid-season, interim artistic director Trish Clarks invitation to Kirchner to guest direct sent a signal to patrons: Everything is going to be all right.
And it is.
Her version of Driving Miss Daisy is a tender, humorously wrought testament to the power of an unlikely friendship between Daisy (Martha Bernier Campbell), a rich, aging, cantankerously spirited Southern Jewish woman, and the black chauffeur, Hoke (Virgil Covington Jr.), whom she insists she does not need. Her son Boolie (Darius Fatemi) introduces the pair and often acts as an intermediary.
In past productions, one of Kirchners strengths was her ability to marshal enormous casts, but Driving Miss Daisy is an intimate affair. With just three actors and a lot of stage to fill, Kirchner designed her own set to make the plays intimacy work for rather than against one of Central Kentuckys largest stages. By grouping three or four clusters of scenery in different areas on the stage, Kirchner creates a cozy atmosphere for the relationships to play out while minimizing the need for laborious set changes.
Mark Krauses lighting design frames these tableaus artfully, particularly in some of the plays more tender scenes. The amber glow of the silent, touching finale is particularly moving as it sensitively captures Daisys vulnerability and Hokes loyalty.
Campbell and Covington deserve praise for their earnest, colorful performances as well as for carefully aging their characters over a period of 20 or more years. When we first meet Miss Daisy, she is a spry and feisty 72-year-old with a penchant for crashing brand-new cars. Hokes age is not divulged, but we know hes old enough to be a grandfather but young enough to work.
Even though Daisy insists she isnt prejudiced from the on-set, there are clear racial tensions and misunderstandings, as when she wrongly thinks Hoke has stolen a can of salmon. An act violence against her temple helps her to grasp their shared social marginalization.
Despite these heavy undertones, Campbell and Covington dont forget the lighter moments, hitting the high notes of the entertaining exchanges between their characters. Daisys shrill, overly-opinionated bickering with Hoke might seem like conflict, but they are actually having fun and so is the audience.
As Boolie, Fatemi also delivers an engaging performance, earning a few key laughs in his supporting role.
But more than laughs or insight into race relations of a bygone era, Driving Miss Daisy is ultimately about two unique individuals and the deepening of their unlikely bond, which Campbell and Covington portray with warmth and sincerity.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.