Unfasten your seatbelts. There are no bumps on this ride. Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, that quaint morsel, is on at Dallas Theater Center. That’s because this fall Dallas Theater Center is doing big things with old shows no one has been clamoring to see again.
Consider this: For its three major productions leading off its current season, DTC chose The Rocky Horror Show, Driving Miss Daisy and A Christmas Carol (billed as a “holiday extra” and not part of the subscription series). The new musical Stagger Lee premieres at this theater in late January. That’s a long wait for something fresh.
There’s nothing wrong with Driving Miss Daisy. No, it’s a perfectly lovely production, directed expertly by Joel Ferrell, performed with professional gloss by three fine actors, all right for their roles, and presented in the comfy old Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek Boulevard with judicious use of the revolving stage. Everything about it is hunky-damn-dory. Except for the fact that they’re doing it at all. Like Our Town and Steel Magnolias, Driving Miss Daisy is nearly ubiquitous, popping up all too often at regional and community theaters and in too-frequent Broadway revivals, like the one a few years back starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones that won raves for its acting but a collective “Who cares?” yawn from critics.
It’s just one of those plays, the sort of soft, sappy comedy that suckers the Pulitzer committee and Oscar voters into thinking it’s great literature making a grand statement on social issues (the 1989 movie won Best Picture over Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot). But really, it’s a piece of mass-market hokum pretending to care about the serious topics of racism and aging while patronizing the hell out of its black character, Hoke the chauffeur, and its old lady, Southern Jewish matron Daisy Werthan.
Daisy, played at DTC by Annalee Jefferies (subbing for Oscar nominee June Squibb, who dropped out to take a movie role), is a wealthy Jewish widow in Atlanta. She’s 72 when the play begins, sometime in the late 1940s, and she’s in her 90s at the end. Hoke Coleburn (DTC company member Hassan El-Amin) is hired to be her driver, much to her dismay. Daisy squawks whenever someone calls her “rich” and says she hates the idea of servants, though she also has a full-time cook/housekeeper (never seen in the play).
Hoke is older, too, already retired from a chauffeuring job with another Southern Jewish family. He’s a black man of his era, careful not to overstep around white people, but bold enough to talk back to Daisy when her nagging and backseat driving get insulting. “I ain’t just the back of the neck you look at,” he tells her. “I am a man.”
The third character, Boolie, Daisy’s son (SMU theater prof James Crawford), is an ambitious businessman married to the never-seen social climber Florine. He plays go-between in arguments between Daisy and Hoke, and also serves as between-scene comic relief throughout the play. He’s a stereotype, too, a blubbery baby-man doing the “go along to get along” politics to keep orders brisk at his printing company from the anti-Semites who dominate the Chamber of Commerce.
Driving Miss Daisy unfolds in short vignettes, many of them in the car, depicted by a chair and a wooden loveseat, as Hoke runs Daisy back and forth to the Piggly Wiggly for more Dutch Cleanser or to services at the synagogue. We see a warm relationship form between employer and employee. Older and more frail in the second half of the play, Daisy comes to depend on Hoke. When Atlanta is shut down by an ice storm, Hoke somehow makes it to Daisy’s house over slick streets, bringing her hot coffee and peace of mind. He’s her super-heroic savior.
Where the play grates most egregiously is not in the faux-mance between Daisy and Hoke, but in the awkward inclusion of real events of social upheaval from mid-20th century America. An Atlanta synagogue was bombed in 1958, so that’s a plot point. Martin Luther King spoke at a United Jewish Appeal dinner, so Uhry has Daisy buying tickets for it, oblivious to having her black chauffeur drop her off at the side entrance to the event.
That all feels force-fed into flow of this simple play. The stuff that gets eyes watery, no matter how hard you try not to wet your cheeks, is how gentle old Hoke is with old Daisy. As she shrinks into the ravages of age, no longer able to go for rides, he keeps right on caring for her. Written as saintly and selfless, scene after scene, Hoke is always more honest, more polite, more considerate than the woman he works for. Talk about a one-upper.
DTC’s actors hit every laugh line, milk every ounce of sentiment. Jefferies’ Daisy is a snapping turtle early on, gradually becoming less dyspeptic. As Hoke, El-Amin creates real chemistry with Jefferies. He twinkles at her glares and stiffens only slightly at her barbs. Their final scene together has just the right touch of sadness and comedy, like the last episode of a great sitcom where the characters group-hug as the lights go down. Crawford gets his lightest role in a long time as Boolie, boosting underwritten telephone scenes with righteous mugging and cute drunk-acting.
Director Joel Ferrell, coming right off staging the huge Rocky Horror at the Wyly Theatre, must have felt some whiplash going into Daisy. He’s revved the pace of the play. Hoke is never allowed to drive over 19 miles per hour, but this production stays strictly in the express lane. Coming in at 80 minutes start to finish (no intermission), you’ll be driving away from Miss Daisy good and quick, feeling warm and well entertained, and maybe a little bit had.