After 3 years of planning, rehearsing, postponements, recasting, and changes in venue & production members, Driving Miss Daisy will finally open on September second at the Soper Reese in Lakeport. To say this production has been an emotional and logistical roller coaster for the cast and crew is an understatement!
The Pulitzer prize-winning show, by Alfred Uhry, takes place in the Deep South from 1948 to 1973. We have an opportunity to witness the characters over a 25-year period. Daisy, a wealthy Jewish widow, is reluctant to give up her independence. Her son, Boolie, hires a chauffeur for her, a black man named Hoke when she is no longer able to drive. As the years pass, there is a shift in the relationship between Daisy and Hoke despite their differences. “This is a tale of aging and how families cope. It’s also one of prejudice in America from blacks to Jews. Ultimately, it’s a story of love and friendship amongst family and unlikely allies.”
The show was selected back in June of 2019 when the Lake County Theatre Company (LCTC) was setting its 2019-2020 season. The show was originally to be directed by Cindy Strong with Michele Chapman as Assistant Director. Shortly after the season was set, Strong moved out of state. Becky Vreeland stepped in as Director, and pre-production commenced, including auditions for the three-character show. Marlena Shapiro was cast as Daisy, David Rogers as her son Boolie, and Larry Richardson was cast as Hoke. Rehearsals began, and the Lower Lake School House Museum was secured as the venue.
Shapiro, a former theatre owner and four-time Las Vegas Regional Theatre Best Actress Nominee who has an “A” Rating and multiple films and television credits, was relatively new to LCTC. She’d had a vacation home in Lake County for 20 years but didn’t live here permanently until 2018. She was trying to figure out “how to work in a county without a lot of theatre activity.” She showed up to an LCTC board meeting and ended up being cast in the 2019 Production of The Taming of the Shrew and then Daisy a few months later.
In March 2020, just two months before the show was to open, the country shut down due to COVID, and the show was postponed. Over the next year, the character of Boolie would be recast two more times as Rogers and his replacement, Tim St. Cyr, both needed to move on due to other commitments. The third set of auditions found Doug Cembellin cast as Boolie.
Cembellin, was newly married, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Pleasanton, and working as an educator. He and his wife were looking for a weekend getaway within their price range, and that led them to Lake County. During the pandemic, they worked remotely and ultimately decided to let their apartment go and stay here permanently. Because he moved here during the pandemic, he had “no opportunity to develop a community” for himself. He thought auditioning for LCTC might provide the opportunity to do just that.
Cembellin, who has a Masters’s degree in Cinematic Arts, teaches film classes virtually for Diablo College. He used the pandemic and the subsequent postponements to hike the Pacific Crest Trail with his wife and to take a belated honeymoon in Southeast Asia. Cembellin hasn’t been on stage for more than 15 years, focusing instead on his film and teaching career. He says his biggest challenge has been “getting back on the horse and training his brain to learn his lines.”
The pandemic also forced a change in venue. The company had hoped a larger venue (the Soper Reese) and limited seating might allow the show to open in the fall of 2021. Unfortunately, things did not open up, and the show was postponed again. In the Spring of 2022, the production lost its Producer, when Charise Reynolds (yours truly), stepped down to focus on running for the Middletown Unified School Board. But, the show kept chugging along, and Stage Manager Cynthia Forbes stepped up to take on the additional job of producing.
One unforeseen result of the pandemic has been that volunteers have drifted away due to nothing going on while waiting for things to get back to normal. Those who are still involved with the company are having to double up on jobs in their efforts to make sure this show gets seen.
Meanwhile, the cast has had challenges of their own. Shapiro likened the experience to a balloon being inflated and deflated and said that “relearning the script 3 times was exhausting.” She spoke about working on Daisy’s character arc in conjunction with her own arc as an actor. As much as she enjoyed rehearsals and exploring the relationships between these characters and how they change, at the same time, she was leery of getting too excited and let down by yet another postponement.
Richardson (LCTC President and actor/choreographer), who rounds out the cast as Hoke, says his biggest challenge wasn’t the pandemic or the postponed performances. “What I found most challenging was going back to the way I spoke as a child in Mississippi and dropping the endings of words.” He moved to California when he was 8 and was acutely aware that he didn’t speak the way the other kids did. By the time he was 12, he’d completely transformed the way he spoke in an effort to not stand out.
Coincidentally, his dad was a chauffeur. He recalls his dad telling him and his siblings that they’d “be treated differently.” These days, he says that he’s lived here in Lake County long enough that everyone knows him, and he “no longer” has to worry about being pulled over just because of the color of his skin. He finds relevance in this show and especially wants younger generations to see it.
When asked about her challenges as director, Vreeland laughed, explaining that she spent hours with the set designer trying to figure out where to set the front door until Forbes pointed out that the hired help and the son would likely never use the front door, opting for the door to the kitchen instead. Her biggest challenge, however, surprised her. As a first-time director, she came into this production with the presumption that such experienced actors would appreciate, and work best with, a more hands-off approach. What she found was just the opposite. The actors wanted to know where she wanted them on stage and to know what their “business” was. (Business is the action that the actors undertake on stage, for example, pouring a cup of tea.) She said she had to “figure out in a hurry how best to move people on set.”
Richardson, who also has experience as a director, noticed the shift, as well. He attributes the actors’ different approach to the fact that LCTC doesn’t have its own theatre. “Doug and Marlena are fabulous. They really get into their parts, but we (LCTC) don’t always set the blocking early into the rehearsal process because things can change once you actually move from the rehearsal space onto the stage.”
Vreeland said that she found the most rewarding part of this process to be “seeing the scenes come together as I envisioned them in my head.” The cast had nothing but praise for Vreeland’s direction. Says Shapiro, “Becky’s intuition is good. She has a sense of which direction to go and what she’s looking for.” Cembellin, who also has directed before, praises Vreeland’s growth and says that she’s “collaborative and encourages input from the actors.” She also encouraged collaboration from Chapman. The Assistant Director has been acting for many years. In this production, she has provided a “second set of eyes” for Vreeland, who said that they “worked great as a team.”
The cast also tattled on Chapman and reported that “she cries every time she watches the end of the show.” That’s a pretty convincing reason to go see this show in and of itself, though I have a few other reasons, as well. Personally, I’ve only ever seen Richardson in musical comedies. I’m looking forward to his transformation into Hoke and his return to his dramatic roots (His first show was To Kill A Mockingbird followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I’ve also been waiting for 3 years to see Shapiro who has 50 years of acting experience and was terrific in The Taming of the Shrew. And, selfishly, as a tall female performer, I’m always interested in seeing a male actor who is taller than me (Cembellin) do well on stage. Especially one who says that he’s “looking forward to the next musical.”
The experience, talent, and dedication of all involved with this production is pretty remarkable. Please give this show the audience that it deserves. And, bring a friend!
Driving Miss Daisy runs September 2nd through the 18th at the Soper Reese in Lakeport. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm (with the exception of Saturday 9/3 at 2 pm), and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.lctc.us. Please call the theatre to check on COVID requirements before coming to the Soper Reese.