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A CurtainUp Review
Driving Miss Daisy
2010 Broadway Production Review by Elyse Sommer
To answer the above in last to first order.
I spent three evenings this past week at theaters on 45th Street. The street's biggest crowds each night were at the Golden Theater's stage door so it seems that Redgrave and Jones do indeed seem to have the oomph factor producers nowadays consider a must for straight dramas. This was confirmed by the packed house on the night I saw the play and, if you still consider the nowadays de rigueur standing ovation a valid indicator, this Miss Daisy and Hoke have not only brought ticket selling magnetism to this revival but are fulfilling audience expectations.
Redgrave and Jones are indeed excellent and Boyd Gaines couldn't be better in the important intermediate role of Miss Daisy's son Boolie (Dan Ackroyd nabbed a best supporting actor Oscar nomination). If there's a star constellation in this production, however, it's Jones. Since he's 79 it's admittedly a stretch for him to play Hoke at 60, his age at the beginning of the play, but Jones is so endearing that this is never a real concern.
While Jones comes mighty close to stealing the show, Redgrave is not an actress to be overshadowed. As a member of the renowned British thespian family, she's a far remove from the Jewish Werthans of Atlanta, yet she's pro enough to speak her lines without a trace of her native Britspeak. It should also come as no surprise that she has put her own spin on Miss Daisy. She's more school-marmish and less elegant than Jessica Tandy was and this works pretty well. Ultimately though, especially during her interpretation of Miss Daisy's throat-tightening final scene, Redgrave's does Daisy at 97 so harrowingly that it seems too much of an actor-ish tour-de-force. Though this left me stunned but dry-eyed and somehow heightened my indelible memories of Jessica Tandy's more delicate performance, it should be noted that there were quite a few sobs to be heard all around me.
As to that first question about how the set-in-her ways Daisy Wertham can convincingly change from stubbornly rejecting the chauffeur her son insisted on hiring for her to cherishing him as her best friend, the credit here belongs to the playwright as much as the actors. The 90-minute arc that begins with Miss Daisy's resistance and Hoke's persistence and ends up with them convincingly bonded still works because Uhry has avoided melodrama and focused on real and believable characters — understandably so, since Daisy and Hoke are sensitively crafted portraits drawn from real people from his own Atlanta childhood. Miss Daisy is a composite of various kinfolk, including his grandmother, whose chauffeur actually was a man named Will Coleburn who lived long enough to see the original production.
The two protagonists are as different as can be, yet as we watch them it becomes clear that underneath it all, they very much alike. They're different in that Miss Daisy is a white well-to-do Southerner whose parsimonious ways are the product of a less affluent youth, and though she regards herself tolerant, harbors many prejudices typical of her era and cultural background. Hoke is an uneducated black man who may sound subservient but he too is proud and strong-willed and he has more than a few lessons in tolerance for his boss: the first time, when she's convinced he's followed what she views as his race's pattern of easy thievery by stealing a can of salmon from her carefully inventoried pantry, and when during a trip to visit her brother in Mobile, Alabama, she is totally insensitive to his not having been able to go to the bathroom at a gas station and he stands up to her. Adding to the believability of this unlikely friendship is the fact that Uhry keeps a tight reign on any saccarine impulses. Hoke never drops the "Miss" and she never abandons her acerbic comments, especially about her son's probably paying Hoke too well.
The finely drawn portraits are the stuff of what was once common theatrical fare but is nowadays regarded as a rarity: the well-made play, without fourth wall breaking explanatory narration, just a gentle, fairly predictable story that engages us through the interaction of its universally appealing characters. Since the story parallels the Civil Rights movements, this moving personal drama has a historical subtext that underscores these characters' universality.
The historical subtext is at its most incisive when one of the places to which Hoke drives miss Daisy every week, the reformed temple of which she is a member, is bombed. The bombing of that temple (The Hebrew Benevolent Association) in 1958, was one of the most traumatic events in Atlanta Jewish History and it opens Miss Daisy's eyes to the realities of bigotry that Hoke has known all too well all his life. When she declares that the racists who bombed her reformed temple probably had meant to bomb one of the conservative synagogues or the orthodox one, Hoke wryly remarks that "It doan' matter to them people. A Jew is a Jew to them folks. Jes like light or dark. We all the same nigger." (Uhry dramatized an earlier trauma for Atlantans, the Leo Frankís trial, for the musical Parade (my review). The complexity of the era for liberal-minded Jews like the Werthans is actually most effectively seen via Booley's response to a Martin Luther King dinner invitation.
For anyone who saw the movie, which started with the crash and crunch of Miss Daisy's wrecking her car and generally opened up the play's episodic structure and expanded the 3-member cast, seeing David Esbjornson's more quiet, minimalist production will bring a new appreciation of the delicacy and richness of the basic play. So much so that it can begin more quietly with Boyd Gaines readying his mother's house for sale and us for a flashback. No need for a parade of real cars, or lots of interior and exterior scenery or costume changes for Miss Daisy. Just good actors to draw out the nuances of a changing personal relationship within the context of a changing society.