After about a decade of directing shows at Magnolia Arts Center, Kevin Lee knew it was time for theater to take a back seat. Things had gotten busy in his profession — real estate sales — and his pastime — showing Hackney ponies — and something had to give.
But after a three-year hiatus, Lee is happy to be back at the wheel of “Driving Miss Daisy,” opening today at Magnolia. The Pulitzer prize-winning play became an Academy Award-winning film in 1989, and, more than two decades later, found success on Broadway.
Already, the play seems to be a hit locally. Lee said recent surveys of Magnolia's audiences showed “Driving Miss Daisy” was the play most often mentioned as one people would like to see. About half the seats for all eight performances had been sold five days before the opening.
Set in the South, the play by Alfred Uhry tells the story of a friendship that developed between a Jewish widow and her African-American chauffeur during a 25-year period from 1948-1973.
“It was a very different America than there is today,” Lee said, referring to segregation and antisemitism. “They both had to deal with certain things.
“Miss Daily's rich; Hoke is poor. She is educated and was a teacher. Hoke can't read; he's uneducated. (They are) very different but so much alike at the same time,” he said. “It's a beautiful story of an unlikely friendship.”
Bobbie Bonnet, who makes her Magnolia Arts debut as Daisy Werthen, considers it an unlikely role. While Bonnet is a veteran actress of community theater in her native Ohio as well as Virginia and South Carolina, she hasn't performed on stage in 25 years.
A Greenville resident since 2000, Bonnet knew of Magnolia Arts, but the retired nurse had never considered auditioning before.
“It was a whim,” she said. “I saw the ad for auditions one Thursday, and they were that night. Something just made me show up. I really didn't expect to get the role.”
While she loved the story of “Driving Miss Daisy,” Bonnet worried about the amount of dialogue that would be involved in a play that features only three characters. Florine, Daisy's daughter-in-law, and Idella, her housekeeper, both had roles in the film version. They are referenced in the play but do not appear on stage.
“That's been one of my biggest concerns,” Bonnet said. “It's been a long time since I've done this. At my, shall we say, advanced age, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to memorize. ... There are a lot of lines that are similar.”
Much of the play centers on day-to-day conversations between Daisy and Hoke Colburn, played by Grant Hayes.
Hayes, who stared in the musical “Purlie” at Magnolia in 2018, is more accustomed to learning songs than dialogue. The dean of the College of Education at ECU, he is a classically trained singer whose undergraduate degree is in music. But he welcomed the chance to co-star as Hoke, a strong but gentle man whose patience and humility are a driving force in the story.
“One thing that intrigues me about his character is every word that he says has a meaning,” Hayes said. “He's not one of the people who just talks all the time, but when he does say something, it's of importance.
“He acts in such a compassionate and soft-spoken way,” he said. “During that time, there was so much unrest in the nation. But I think that's some of the brilliance of this playwright: to portray that character as someone who is not angry or upset or loud in order to get a message across. I think the playwright saw that silence is power also.”
Ken Newelt plays Daisy's son, Boolie, who hires Hoke over his mother's insistence that she does not need a driver. A retired marriage and family therapist, Newelt was featured in “Almost, Maine” in 2018 and most recently was part of the cast for Magnolia's 10-Minute Play Festival, which was directed by Stephen Harding.
Harding, who was serving as the president of Magnolia's board of directors at the time, died in September at age 54 due to complications from surgery.
Newelt said he and other “Driving Miss Daisy” cast and crew members, who had just begun rehearsals, were shocked and saddened by the loss. Harding was a longtime volunteer who had become a fixture at Magnolia, where his roles ranged from acting and directing to designing fliers to promote shows.
“We're still kind of reeling from it. He was so much of the glow of this place,” Newelt said of Harding, who served as minister of media and arts at Oakmont Baptist Church.
“He was a wizard. He did everything,” Newelt said. “He designed sets. He came up with things for the web page. He was an inspiration to all of us ... There's a big, empty hole here.”
Performances of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which continue through Oct. 19, will be dedicated to Harding's memory.