Driving Miss Daisy
Boyd Gaines, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave
Actors the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are increasingly scarce these days. Over the courses of their respective fifty-plus year careers, each has tackled both contemporary and classic plays (including Shakespeare), simultaneously taking on numerous film and TV roles, and they're still around to impress us on-stage.|
Alfred Uhry's play Driving Miss Daisy, it turns out, makes the perfect star vehicle for this pair of actors. After a car accident, Miss Daisy Werthan (Redgrave) finds herself pressured by her son Boolie (Boyd Gaines) to hire a driver. After interviewing Hoke Coburn (Jones), Boolie is convinced that he'll be the man for the job and hires him on the spot.
Miss Daisy is somewhat less than enthusiastic about the idea of having Hoke around eating her food, invading her privacy, and diminishing her personal freedoms. She'd rather take public transportation to the Piggly Wiggly at first, but, eventually, she resigns herself to Hoke's presence and allows him to drive her around (albeit whilst continually criticizing his driving skills).
The play spans a number of years, beginning in the 1950s and ending in the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. At first, Daisy treats Hoke as inferior, attempting to teach him how to read and accusing him of theft. As Daisy begins to accept Hoke into her life, however, he becomes someone that she relies on. Though their relationship is very much still one of employer and driver, a shift has occurred, and it's one that can never be reversed.
By the time Miss Daisy proclaims Hoke to be her best friend, the audience surrounding me was in tears . It's a sad story, about a woman just backwards enough to have excluded herself from embracing the world fully until it's too late. Hoke, a strong-willed, kind individual, is similarly tragic. How might his life have been different if, say, he'd learned to read or been able to break away and make a name for himself rather than waiting on white folks?
The play is likely to provoke tears and discussion, but still, more than twenty years after its premiere in 1987, the play feels somehow stuck in the past, a relic of a bygone time that, while worth revisiting, lacks much in the way of real insight into the time period in which it's set.
Though these situations are ones that we can relate to as human beings, the patronizing treatment of Hoke in the play seems offensive despite the demonstrative purposes of these segments. This is mostly because Uhry never gives Hoke his own payoff, preferring to focus on Daisy as she nears the end of her life, and because we as an audience never really viscerally feel the influence of the Civil Rights Movement that's happening just outside Miss Daisy's front door.
Redgrave is fabulous in the role of Daisy, making due use of her refined air to establish her character as one who won't be reckoned with. As her character ages, Redgrave makes the physical transformation as an actor with ease (and without the use of prosthetics). Jones, despite an occasional lack of diction, is really the standout in this production, commanding the stage with impressive force in the face of Daisy's relentless condescension.
Also impressive is Boyd Gaines as Boolie, who is the conduit between Daisy and Hoke, regulating the finances of their set-up and communicating essential bits of wisdom between the two. Their three-way dynamic is one that wholly works on-stage and is essentially the glue that holds this production of this less-than-fantastic play together.