Jefferson Performing Arts Society presents road-tested favorite

The year is 1948. The place is the Deep South. At 72, Daisy Werthan, a wealthy but crotchety widowed Jewish schoolteacher, has just demolished a car, and her son Boolie takes her keys away and hires a chauffeur to drive her around. The driver is proud and soft-spoken. He is also black.

Thus begins the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama “Driving Miss Daisy,” which the Jefferson Performing Arts Society opens Friday at Teatro Wego in Westwego and on May 24 at the North Star Theatre in Mandeville.

Initially, the two are uncomfortable in each other’s company. Daisy treats Hoke Coleburn with disdain. Hoke is not impressed with her patronizing tone and suspects she holds some underlying prejudices. But in a series of scenes spanning 25 years, their relationship is transformed into something unexpected.

“They form a relationship and friendship over a period of time,” said director Silas Cooper, an Abbeville native who has performed in London, Moscow and Los Angeles and now teaches drama at the New Orleans School for Performing Arts. “They grow on one another, and that’s what makes it beautiful.”

The three-person play, which runs about one hour, stars Janet Shea as Daisy, Donald Lewis Jr. as Hoke and Kristopher Shaw as Boolie. All three are seasoned New Orleans actors, and the experience they bring to the stage has made directing them a pleasure, Cooper said.

“It’s very much an actor-driven play,” he said. “It was conceived to be done with minimal sets and minimal props, and you’re never supposed to believe you’re anywhere other than a theater.”

“Driving Miss Daisy” was written by Alfred Uhry in 1987 and premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street and later down the street at the John Houseman Theatre.

It won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play.

The play moved to Broadway’s John Golden Theatre in 2010, starring James Earl Jones as Hoke, Vanessa Redgrave as Daisy and Boyd Gaines as Boolie.

The heartwarming story may best be remembered as an Academy Award-winning film starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd. In 1989, it collected four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Makeup and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Cooper said recognition was the last thing on Uhry’s mind when he penned “Daisy,” the first of his so-called “Atlanta Trilogy.” (The other two are “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and “Parade.”)

“The play was written as something that would resonate with his family and a select group of friends who had common experiences growing up in the South,” he said. “He never expected it to be a Pulitzer Prize, huge hit, Academy-Award winning movie.”

The show is sprinkled with comedy, but it also deals with serious issues — ageism, for one; racism for another.

“It’s not a civil rights play, but it does resonate in the background,” Cooper said. “There are references to Martin Luther King Jr. and bombings of Jewish synagogues.

“A lot of people will be able to relate to the first scene because that’s when the son has to take away his mother’s car keys. And that’s a huge thing,” Cooper said. “The play is a reminder to live life everyday and fight your darnedest to experience every moment of it, because it can change in an instant.”

Shea brings 50 years of experience in drama, comedy and musicals to her role as Daisy, having starred in such local productions as “Grey Gardens,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Sweeny Todd” and “Cabaret.” A drama instructor at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), she has garnered six Big Easy Awards, five Storer Boone Awards and four Marquee Awards.

Lewis, a NOCCA graduate who now teaches drama and storytelling in the Recovery School District, has numerous plays, films, television shows and commercials to his credit. He is a founder of Kita Productions and works with Running With Scissors productions.

Although best known for his acting work, Shaw has directed a multitude of plays and musicals, including “The Act,” starring the late Cynthia Owen, “Cabaret” and the regional premiere of “Titanic: The Musical.”