Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Driving_Miss_Daisy_1_credit_Annabel_ClarkNEW YORK – Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, actors of uncommon stature, are giving eloquent performances in a revival of Alfred Uhry’s "Driving Miss Daisy" that is playing through Jan. 29 at Broadway’s Golden Theater on West 44th Street. Their finely etched characterizations are turning Mr. Uhry’s small, sentimental conceit of a play about the cantankerous relationship between an elderly Jewish widow and her Afro-American chauffeur into something theatrically memorable.

Although I still have reservations about Mr. Uhry’s play, I have no qualms about the luminous performances of its two leading players. "Driving Miss Daisy" has been popular with playgoers ever since it debuted at off-Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons Theater in 1987. It won a Pulitzer Prize that year and, in 1989, a film version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman received four Academy Awards.

Mr. Uhry’s play is set in the late 1940s in his native Atlanta, Ga., when the civil rights movement was just an unfilled dream. When we meet Daisy Werthan (Ms. Redgrave) she is 72, and has just had an accident in which she demolished her new Packard, a two-car garage and a tool shed. She emerged unscathed, but her devoted son Boolie – excellently played with understated sensitivity by Boyd Gaines – thinks she should not be driving anymore. He would like to hire a chauffeur for her like the drivers her well-to-do lady friends employ. Daisy is fervently against the idea. Losing her right to drive is like having her freedom taken away. She reminds Boolie of her "constitutional rights," one of which is to invite whomever she wants into her home; and she clearly does not want any chauffeur sitting around in her kitchen eating her food and using her phone.

She also recalls her humble beginnings and the way her sisters had to sacrifice to send her to teaching school. She points out that her family always fended for itself and lived within its means. She doesn’t think of herself as a rich widow, even though her son points out that her late husband left her well off and that the Werthan Printing Company is still flourishing under his direction.

Despite Daisy’s protestations, Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver, Hoke Coleman (Mr. Jones), a black man of about 60 who has had previous jobs driving a milk truck and chauffeuring a now-retired judge. He warns him that his mother tends to be "high strung." "I hold on no matter what way she runs me," promises Hoke.

In a series of short scenes that spans a 25-year period –1948 to 1973 – we see Daisy’s and Hoke’s relationship grow. At first she’s cold and unfriendly; he’s the soul of patience. After six days of not letting him do anything, she finally allows Hoke to drive her to the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket. While she’s shopping, Hoke joyously calls Boolie to celebrate his victory over Daisy, saying, "It took the same time it took the Lawd to make the world!"

Slowly, in very small ways, Daisy becomes fond of Hoke. When she accidently finds out he can’t read she gives him an old "Hand & Writing Copy Book – Grade 5" which she says will teach him to write "nicely."

As Daisy gets older, she becomes more and more dependent on Hoke. The play’s bonding scene comes about when an ice storm leaves Daisy without electricity, alone and afraid. The roads are so treacherous that even Boolie can’t get over to help her. Yet Hoke arrives with hot coffee from the service store. When Daisy asks him how he managed the icy roads, he says he learned to drive on ice from his days delivering milk.

Mr. Uhry’s play takes us through the Civil Rights era of great change in the South, which in many ways echoes Daisy’s and Hoke’s evolving relationship from one of employer and employee to elderly friends

Miss Redgrave plays Daisy with a stalwart, sober sense of self, and with not a hint of southern eccentricity; in many ways, her Daisy is still the school teacher, firmly strict, but mostly fair, a walking scepter of sovereignty.

Mr. Jones’s performance allows for greater emotion and a more layered characterization, going from a somewhat broken man in need of a $20-a-week job to a proud and treasured citizen.

Ms. Redgrave and Mr. Jones are fascinating to watch because they make Daisy and Hoke into living, breathing characters. Very few actors can transform themselves so completely from one play to another the way they do. Ms. Redgrave is 74, and Mr. Jones will be 80 next month. Both have mastered acting as a great art in which each character is freshly created from the outside and inside.

Many fine, first-class performers have played Mr. Uhry’s roles before, but what is different in this "Driving Miss Daisy" is that Ms. Redgrave and Mr. Jones make you care more for Daisy and Hoke. In the end, I found that this "Driving Miss Daisy" had more to admire than this skeptic had thought likely.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.