It was actor-director Will McGregor’s spring and summer childhood days in the South that drew him to direct Driving Miss Daisy for Nashua Theatre Guild’s 51st season.
“I had a great-aunt from [that] era,” said McGregor, who has spent the past six years with the guild. “She actually had servants in her house, and I remember it felt like the people in the house took care of me more than she did. That was the lifestyle there. [Estill, S.C.] is still a very segregated town.”
Driving Miss Daisy will be performed Thursday through Sunday at the Janice B. Streeter Theater. When Nashua Theatre Guild decided on the award-winning play — written by Alfred Uhry and made famous by the screenplay starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy — about a year ago, the show saw a huge response for auditions from actors and actresses all over New England, McGregor said.
Ultimately, only three actors made the cut: Barbara Webb, who plays Miss Daisy, Chris Leon as Hoke Colburn, and Mike Wood as Boolie Werthan.
Set in 1950s Atlanta, Driving Miss Daisy is the story of an elderly Jewish widow whose son makes the call that she is no longer able to drive on her own. Miss Daisy’s son hires an African-American driver for her, Hoke, which makes the matron far from pleased at the play’s beginning. But as anyone who’s seen the beloved drama knows, the story unfolds to find the two outsiders coming to respect and care for one another.
“I feel as though I know her,” said Webb of Miss Daisy. “I was raised among old people. My grandmother lived with us until she passed away in her 90s. My mother moved in with my husband and [me]. I have a sense of how you get more set in your ways and don’t want to lose your independence … I’m close enough to that that I can feel it. I knew where she was coming from.”
Webb, who has been acting for 23 years and whose first play was with the Nashua Theatre Guild, said that Miss Daisy doesn’t see herself as prejudiced.
“She comes along and makes great strides,” said Webb, who was nominated for a 2012 N.H. Theatre Award for best actress for her role in August: Osage County with the Milford Area Players. “She and Hoke come to be great friends.”
Webb first heard the production was coming to Nashua during the summer. She was looking for major roles for an older female actress, which can be a challenge to find, she said.
“I certainly said to anyone who would listen that I was interested [in playing Miss Daisy],” said Webb, laughing. “As a 68-year-old, I will travel almost anywhere for a good role for an older woman.”
Having worked a variety of day jobs and now semi-retired and working from home as a paralegal, Webb said she continues to act because it gives her an outlet. She thrives on the challenge and excitement of “starting on a project that’s so open-ended.”
“Working on it as long as it takes is like birthing a child,” Webb said. “Something comes out, and it’s alive, and you become someone else. I get to see the world through their eyes.”
McGregor speaks highly of his cast. He calls Webb a stalwart in the community theater scene and says he feels confident and comfortable working with Wood, whom he’s directed and been directed by in the past. He describes Leon, who plays Hoke, as a rarity and diamond in the rough: “He’s starting out in theater and is an incredibly talented guy. We basically cast the entire show around him.”
McGregor knew Driving Miss Daisy and its characters well before casting and directing it for the guild, but he said he fell in love with the people all over again.
“People have seen Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in these roles, but the play itself is vastly different,” McGregor said. “It delves deeper into the relationships and touches less on the atmosphere. You get a better sense of who these people are and some of the hurdles they’ve faced. It’s definitely character-driven.”
As for the Nashua Theatre Guild, McGregor said he’s proud of its reputation and collaboration with other community theater groups in the area.
“Over the last 15 years, as bad as the economy has gotten and as much as the [cost] to do live theater has gone up, Nashua Theatre Guild still offers accessible theater to the masses. It’s harder and harder to find that.