Dinner theaters avoid straight drama because, well, it’s intense. Tears mix poorly with a slice of espresso brulee cheesecake.
Then you have “Driving Miss Daisy,” a brilliantly funny piece that leaves audiences choking back sobs.
But they’re good sobs.
Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-winning play is almost too deft and graceful to be true, a canny blend of comedy and genuine emotion shot through with references to race, religion, aging and death.
And in the New Theatre Restaurant’s current production of the play, director Dennis Hennessy and his impeccable cast — headed by Emmy winner Michael Learned and Charlie Robinson — deliver an experience so raucously amusing and quietly moving that the viewer feels transformed.
Based on the playwright’s own family members, “Daisy” follows for more than 20 years the relationship of Daisy Werthan (Learned), a wealthy Jewish widow in Atlanta, and her African-American chauffeur, Holk Colburn (Robinson).
Things get off to a rocky start when Daisy’s son Boolie (David Fritts) declares his aging mama unfit behind the wheel and hires Holk to ferry her on expeditions to the Piggly Wiggly.
Daisy is a cranky lady, indignant at this humiliating development, and she takes it out on her new employee. She makes a point of daily counting the silverware and canned goods because, well, those people.
Holk, a born diplomat, responds with quiet patience and dignity, with only brief flashes of exasperated eye rolling. He becomes an expert at cajoling his employer.
This unusual pairing begins in the late 1940s and continues well into the 1960s, and if after a while the Daisy/Holk bickering starts to sound a lot like a marriage, so be it. In the fullness of time these two unlikely companions will realize just how important they are to each other.
Uhry’s script has plenty of references to the changes in American culture during this period, upheavals captured in the vintage photographs projected on the large screen that dominates James Misenheimer’s set design. Some of these images are nostalgic (Harry Truman, Elvis, Johnny Carson), while others are jarring (cops beating up black protesters, an African-American school girl running a gauntlet of taunting white students).
What’s remarkable is how Uhry folds all this social upheaval into the play without ever getting preachy or didactic. This is Daisy and Holk’s story; their relationship is front and center.
And the play’s format — individual scenes that run for only two or three minutes and end with a blackout — delivers the story quickly and efficiently. There’s not a wasted moment, and “Daisy” never outstays its welcome.
The performances? You’re unlikely to ever see better. Learned’s Daisy is a crusty example of white privilege who is over time transformed by her partnership with Holk. He’s played by Robinson as a man radiating quiet decency and caring, despite his gentle sniping at his employer’s more glaring shortcomings.
Fritts is just about perfect as Boolie, who looks on with approving bemusement and an ironic sense of humor. He’ll need it, being a Jewish businessman in a town of good ol’ boys.
This play, this production, is so good that it could run in perpetuity, entertaining and embracing generation after generation. Take your kids to see it, and then your grandkids.
“Driving Miss Daisy” continues at the New Theatre Restaurant through Nov. 26. See newtheatre.com or call 913-649-7469.