How do you make an American theatrical icon like Driving Miss Daisy fresh and new? A story so familiar that it can be recognizably spoofed in just a couple of words, like the time That's So Raven named an episode Driving Miss Lazy or when Goldie Hawn described a woman's Hollywood shelf life as "babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy" in The First Wives Club?
So, yeah, how do you put a new spin on something like that?
If you're director Saul Leibner, you don't.
You do it just as playwright Alfred Uhry wrote it in 1987. If it was good enough to win the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Off-Broadway Play, and later, as a movie, to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, then it's just fine, as is, for the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse.
The challenge for both director and actors is doing justice to characters that almost everyone already knows: an aging Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, whose doting son Boolie decides she is no longer able to drive, so he hires a wise and patient black man, Hoke Colburn, to be her driver. Through their years together from 1948 to 1973, Miss Daisy learns a lot about herself and her prejudices from Hoke, and they become friends.
Leibner is confident he started out with the best of basic ingredients for his production, namely three actors who are ready, willing and able to do their parts.
"I feel very fortunate to have gotten these actors," Leibner said shortly after he cast them this year.
Award-winning performer Lorus Hawbecker (Grandmother in Lost in Yonkers at Richey Suncoast Theatre) will play 72-year-old Daisy, the proud, determined Southern lady dealing with getting older and facing her own prejudices.
Glenn Claytor (Solomon, 45 Seconds From Broadway) plays Daisy's new chauffeur, Hoke.
Leslie Richards (Young Man in Veronica's Room) plays Boolie.
The other characters portrayed in the movie — Idella, the maid, Boolie's wife, Florine, the doctor and others — are referred to, but not seen in the play.
"Our difficulty is making the transitions from scene to scene," Leibner said. The characters must age a quarter of a century, which he said is being done with graying to the hair and other small touches.
"The problem is quick changes of costumes," he said. Miss Daisy must go from a cemetery to a dressy Christmas scene to a bathrobe and street clothes in small amounts of time.
"That's more down time than I really like to spend in the dark," Leibner said. Even with changes, the play is only about 100 minutes long, with no intermission.
Leibner has opted not to use the Grammy-nominated soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, with its instantly recognizable five-note electronic tune.
"Whatever we do (use), it's going to be from my own stuff, some I picked out that sounds interesting, that people have never heard before," Leibner said.
The emphasis will be on character, with minimal set pieces to suggest surroundings, letting the actors carry the story.
"I've wanted to (direct) this play for five or six years," said Leibner, who has won six HAMI Awards for directing at Stage West. "Finally, the (play committee) decided to do it."