Miss Daisy”, Written by Alfred Uhry; Directed by Benny
Sato Ambush, Set Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costumes by Gail Astrid
Buckley; Presented by The Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St.,
Gloucester through September 22nd. For further info, visit www.gloucesterstage.com
I’ve never seen the Oscar-winning movie, ‘Driving
Miss Daisy’, which, for purposes of a theater review, is probably a good thing.
So not having anything to compare the stage production now playing at the
Gloucester Stage Company to, I can truthfully say it’s pretty damn good. Not
that I (or anyone) should be surprised. Well before the movie version picked up
four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actress for Jessica Tandy as
Daisy) the play had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Outer Critics Circle Award in 1988.
It should also come
as no surprise that this version is as strong as it is, given that the Gloucester
Stage Company mounted a couple of terrific productions already this season in ‘Spring Awakenings’ and the underappreciated ‘This Is Our Youth’ (I did not see ‘North Shore Fish’). But while those productions dealt with the painful and
sometimes tragic realities of growing up, the season-closing ‘Daisy’ is a
reminder to us that the learning process never stops, even as we grow older.
For those who have
seen neither the movie nor the play, it revolves around the 25-year
relationship between Daisy Werthan, a recently widowed, 72-year old Jewish ex-schoolteacher
and Hoke Colburn, her African-American chauffeur in
his mid-fifties. Set in Atlanta, and unfolding just after World War II, the
play chronicles the evolution of the friendship between the two during a time
when not only were ‘Whites Only’ signs on storefront windows the standard in
the South, but anti-Semitism was more openly prevalent as well.
The play opens with Daisy’s son Boolie (Robert
Pemberton) telling his mother that he is hiring her a chauffeur following her
latest driving mishap, and she strenuously objects. He hires Hoke anyway and
the relationship begins. Very rockily. People don’t like to have decisions
forced upon them, and they are less likely to respond well as they get older
and feel their dignity is being impugned. So for the first week or so, Daisy
refuses to allow Hoke to drive her anywhere, and treats him like the second
class, ‘colored’ citizen that he is (in the context of the historical setting),
despite having a black maid that she appears to treat with some respect.
Daisy is played by
the talented Lindsay Crouse (best known for her film and television work), and
there’s nothing ‘cute’ or sentimental about Crouse’s character. So if you’re
anticipating a schmaltzy story, forget it. She plays Daisy as a steely woman
who initially believes that Hoke truly is beneath her, despite her
protestations that she is ‘not prejudiced’. This helps her to maintain a sense
of order in her rapidly changing life, where the ‘coloreds’ know their place.
And Hoke (in a great performance by Johnny Lee Davenport) does ‘know his
place’. This is 1948 America in the South, and he is grateful to have a job – especially given his advancing age. He also has had a lot of practice keeping
his mouth shut, except when he innocently gives his thoughts on ‘the Jews’ to
his potential employer (to great comic effect) thus revealing his own prejudice. But it is difficult for anyone to
maintain a prejudicial attitude with enough close contact with a fellow human
being, particularly one as good-natured and thoughtful as Hoke. The
relationship inevitably thaws and it is a joy to watch it unfold.
As much as this is a charming story about the slowly
developing friendship between a curmudgeonly older ‘rich’ woman and her poorly
educated (he can’t read) chauffeur, it’s the backdrop of the historical setting
that brings it to another level. The play takes us through the turbulent times
of the civil rights movement, including a scene that uses the bombing of a
Jewish temple in 1958 to bring Daisy and the audience to the realization that
anyone who is in the minority is fair game for the dominant population – no
matter what their color, religion or social standing. Daisy’s son Boolie is
also forced to realize that he must also ‘know his place’ as a Jewish
businessman in the South, in a scene where Pemberton shines.
The intimate setting of the Gloucester stage lends
itself to this beautiful piece, and the set is really charming and functional,
given that there’s a car (a front grill, steering column, and front and back
seats) onstage, with a living room set off to the side and Boolie’s office in the rear.
The play is a one act (75 minutes) that moves quickly and is beautifully acted
and staged, and is well worth the drive (if you’re coming from Boston or points
South or North) as the summer comes to a close.
For further info, visit www.gloucesterstage.com