After successful New York runs—off and on Broadway, more than a decade apart—and a top-10 grossing film adaptation in 1989, DRIVING MISS DAISY is a more than thrice-told tale by now.
Given the sentiment attached to Jessica Tandy's last great film role and Morgan Freeman's Oscar-winning breakthrough, the question is irresistible: What remains unexplored for a contemporary audience?
Fortunately, this NC Theatre production shows why it's important to revisit even the most popular fare. Sometimes, the story everybody knows can still surprise you.
Director Eric Woodall remembers that playwright Alfred Uhry's 1987 drama didn't win a Pulitzer Prize for the warm-fuzzies it gave the nominating committee. Uhry's real achievement—which remains visible in this discerning production—is the nuanced, fully human faces he gives American racism in the mid-20th century. Doing so requires a rare curiosity, empathy and honesty.
Pat demonization of the racist has long been a cheap move in plays and films attempting to appeal to—or manipulate—the audience's social conscience. In otherwise notable works such as Ragtime as well as worthless ones such as The Foreigner, racist villains are treated as plot devices more often than as characters. Generally, they're poorly written and utterly unsympathetic straw men, banished to the other side of a clear social divide: They're usually poor, ignorant, inarticulate, corrupt and violent.
But the title character in Driving Miss Daisy is none of these things. She's a reasonably affluent, fiercely independent 72-year-old Atlanta matriarch—a former schoolteacher who regularly goes to temple and takes some pains not to flaunt her social status. In short, she's not a terrible person, and she certainly doesn't consider herself prejudiced.
Yet she still observes at one point that African-American servants "are like having little children in the house. They want something so they just take it. Not a smidgen of manners. No conscience."
Without Daisy's racial mistrust, there's no play here. There's no other meaningful obstacle to overcome.
Nor is she the only character with this flaw. It's significant that her chauffeur, Hoke Colburn, refuses to follow an employer to Savannah because he doesn't get along with "that Geechee trash they got down there." Who and what else counts as "trash" in other places demonstrates that, here, prejudice isn't limited to one ethnicity.
In the preface, Uhry states that Daisy is largely based on his own family members. In honestly depicting their prejudices, he shows the fears and biases that exist in the best of us, which gives us tools to examine them.
Complimenting '70s TV icon Sandy Duncan's incisive work as Daisy, one has to note the transformative effects of Patricia DelSordo's makeup and Ann Bruskiewitz's costumes. Both also deserve credit for Bob Hess' gradual but impressive change, as dutiful son, Boolie, from middle-age to retirement.
Kevyn Morrow's Hoke believably navigates the racial currents of Atlanta before it became "the city too busy to hate." Hoke humors Daisy's prickly remarks before confronting her in later scenes. Though Bill Clarke's sets were economical but effective, technical hiccups marred Sam Rushen's projections on opening night.
There's no small amount of comedy in Driving Miss Daisy. But the play's true impact arrives when ostensibly good people acknowledge and begin to dismantle their own racism. There's a cue for all of us.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Driving force"