Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy is one of those plays that’s easy to underestimate. It’s warm, with somewhat larger-than-life personalities, and it was made into a nice film. But isn’t it a little—well—tame?
The answer is sort of “yes,” but ultimately “no.” I’ll plead guilty to underestimating Alfred Uhry’s script when I went into Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre to see this production. I was going largely out of respect for the cast; this show is something of an all-star effort. It brings together Janice Reade Hoberg, who won an Elly 10 years ago for role of Daisy Werthan at Garbeau’s and is again playing Daisy; Dale O. Black, who won an Elly 10 years ago as Daisy’s son Boolie and is again appearing as Boolie; and James Wheatley, whose awards and credits are too numerous to list here, who plays as chauffeur Hoke Coleburn.
All three actors are very nearly ideally suited to their parts, and they do well in this show, as you’d expect. But what caught me a little off guard was a renewed appreciation for playwright Alfred Uhry’s script.
Uhry owns a special piece of real estate in American theater. His plays Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo are set in Atlanta, but they concern characters who are Jewish, and most of us tend to pigeonhole the Peach State as the realm of Southern Baptists. Uhry also has a knack for writing accessible plays that go down easy with audiences but don’t skirt the darker issues entirely. Driving Miss Daisy gently but effectively hits on segregated restrooms, a bombing at a Jewish temple, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and a relationship between employer and employee that extends for decades and takes on larger proportions.
When I first encountered Driving Miss Daisy back in the 1980s, I thought all this was a little too pat. But now I recall the segregated bathrooms at gas stations in Alabama that I saw as a child in the early 1960s, and I’m jolted by the temple bombings in Sacramento a few years ago.
Uhry’s script, of course, hasn’t changed at all. It’s more a matter of me coming around to the point in life where I can see that there’s more in it than I initially realized.
Anyway, this production is a play, and Driving Miss Daisy was a play before it was a movie—in fact, it won the Pulitzer for drama before the movie came out. It’s best to check any recollections of the film at the door—there’s no automobile that rolls onto the Garbeau’s stage; when Wheatley opens the car door, it’s imaginary.
Wheatley, as ever, moves right in and inhabits his role. Hoberg, as the willful Miss Daisy, has her icy moments early on but then makes the necessary transitions. Black is quite effective as the dutiful son. He also doubles as director, and it’s here that the show sometimes comes up short of the mark: A few scenes end but don’t seem finished, and the show drifts a little after intermission. But it’s still a worthy effort. It should go over well with the dinner-theater crowd, but there are some rewards here for the more serious theatergoer as well.