I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the film version of Driving Miss Daisy, so I am a bit surprised to find that the play is slighter – and better – than I expected. It follows the relationship that develops between Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave) a widowed Jewish Atlanta woman (72 when we first meet her in 1948) and Hoke Coburn (James Earl Jones), the sixty-something black man her son hires to be her chauffeur.
The play covers the years between 1948 and 1972, years in which America’s attitude toward race relations changes dramatically, and in which Daisy and Hoke grow into advanced old age. Driving Miss Daisy deals with those problems only obliquely, repeatedly cutting off scenes before the action reaches any climax. Instead, Driving is the story of two fiercely independent people growing to like each other over time, finally becoming the closest of friends. It is through the lens of this relationship that we glimpse the changing American south.
The way playwright Alfred Uhry cuts off scenes makes Driving feel slight. We see, not high drama, but implied high drama, restrained so that we can continue to focus on the central relationship. Its actually very good playwriting, and is also part and parcel of why I found Driving to be better than I expected. It finds a way to have its cake and eat it to, to tell an affectionate but not saccharine story about a burgeoning friendship while also meditating gently on changes in society. It’s finely crafted chamber theatre.
What make this production particularly satisfying is that this “chamber music” is performed by two proven virtuosos. Redgrave’s Daisy is more staunch than starchy, suspicious but not unreasonable. Jones makes a full meal out of Hoke, finding layers of both feeling and irony far beyond what’s actually in the lines. Director David Esbjornson wisely stays out of his nonpareil cast’s way, delivering a production that is artfully crisp and understated. Not earth-shaking, but recommended nonetheless.
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