Odell Cureton had just hours to prepare his audition for “Driving Miss Daisy,” the Pulitzer Prize winning drama kicking off this year’s season at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre.
Cureton, who moved to Kingston, New Hampshire in 2015, was visiting Portsmouth one afternoon and walked into the Seacoast Rep after seeing an announcement for the Driving Miss Daisy auditions. He learned they were that night. “That put me in somewhat of a frantic mood,” he said. Nevertheless, Cureton showed up for the audition and landed a lead role in what he calls a “platonic love story.”
Driving Miss Daisy opens January 26 at the Seacoast Rep. It tells the story of Daisy Werthan, an elderly, prosperous Jewish widow in Atlanta, and Hoke Colburn, the African-American chauffer she hired after being forced to give up driving. The two overcome an initial wariness to develop a deep bond over the course of their 25 years together.
The play was written by Alfred Uhry, as part of a trilogy on 20th century Atlanta. It was inspired by Uhry’s own grandmother and her chauffer, and the changing social conventions of post-World War II Atlanta. The play led to a movie of the same name, which won an Academy Award for best picture in 1990.
“The heart of the play is the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, that friendship and deep love that grows over time. It is just beautiful and universal,” said director Danielle Howard.
Howard is a Seacoast Rep veteran who last year directed two of the Seacoast Rep’s musical productions: Little Women and Titantic.
This one has a smaller cast — Daisy’s son Boolie, played by Michael Walsh, is the only other character. Daisy is played by Kate Miller.
Cureton had more than luck on his side when he landed what is his first New Hampshire theater role since moving from New York. He had twice before played the role of Hoke. The first time was in 2004 at Theater Three on Long Island. Since then, he said, his insight into the character has deepened.
“I have a greater appreciation for the relationship and the dynamics between Daisy and Hoke,” Cureton said. “They don’t realize how much they have in common and how much they need each other. I think Hoke has an understanding, but it takes her a longer period of time to come to a realization than it does him.”
“Hoke is a man of great dignity. He’s a man of humor, a man of understanding, a man of passion. And all of these come into play as the relationship evolves. Now I’ve come to realize that,” Cureton said.
Daisy’s wealth and white skin set her apart from Hoke, but her Jewish identity also sets her apart from Atlanta’s white Christian class. Their mutual status as “others” is reflected in the story, creating tensions as well as alliance.
A distinguishing element of the play, Howard said, is its “poetic fluidity.”
“There are times where we move from one scene to the next, and it could be the next day or it could be five years from now,” she said. This challenges the actors to depict “the subtle transitions” of their characters across an inconsistent time span.
The set also reflects fluidity with abstracted set pieces and imagery. “There’s this feeling of a scrapbook, of looking back, of that the fluidity of memory,” Howard said. “We get little pieces and vignettes of their experiences.”
The racial dynamics help give Driving Miss Daisy an enduring social resonance, Howard said. She quoted Hoke: “Things changing, but they ain’t change all that much.”
But she and Cureton agreed that the human relationships may be what linger longest in the minds of the audiences.
Said Cureton, “To me it’s like a love story, it’s a platonic love story. I want the audience to walk out thinking they love each other.”
Driving Miss Daisy is proudly sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, Riverwoods, and Bank of New Hampshire
“Driving Miss Daisy” runs January 26-February 19. Show times are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available through the Seacoast Rep box office at 603-433-4472, or online. For student discounts, call the box office. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s 2017 season is sponsored in part by Bondgarden Farms, New Hampshire Public Television, Portsmouth Public Media, MacEdge and Mesh Agency.