BWW Review: DRIVING MISS DAISY in a Deluxe Vehicle
Driving Miss Daisy
Written by Alfred Uhry, Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Sound Design, Jason E. Weber; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears
Performances through September 22 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
When was the last time you attended a straight play where the audience applauded at the end of every scene? Um, I think that would be never. Yet, that is precisely what occurred during the press opening performance of the Gloucester Stage Company production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Driving Miss Daisy, featuring thoughtful, intelligent direction by Benny Sato Ambush and the sublime acting talents of Lindsay Crouse, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Robert Pemberton. It is a fitting capstone to the GSC 2013 season that offered a quartet of challenging works which garnered high praise for their casts and creative teams.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia, between 1948 and 1973, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the play is simply about the unlikely friendship that develops between an independent, crusty Jewish widow and the black driver hired by her son after her diminishing skills result in an accident that levels the neighbor's garage. While Daisy's objections appear on the surface to be based on resenting the loss of freedom, her inherent prejudice is a tougher nut to crack, but Hoke's steadfast perseverance and warm, supportive personality gently win her over.
As instructed by the playwright, Jenna McFarland Lord's scenery is minimal and suggests numerous locales. Daisy's home is an upholstered chair laden with pillows next to a telephone table, Boolie's office is a desk and two chairs on an upstage platform, and the all-important car is a skeleton consisting of a front bumper, steering wheel, and front and rear leather bench seats. Some hanging plants and vines evoke a bucolic atmosphere, enhanced by John Malinowski's warm lighting hues, and Sound Designer Jason Weber fills the air between scenes with banjo music. Daisy wears a fine array of dresses for a well-to-do Atlanta widow by Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley.
If the scenery is merely suggestive, the acting is at the opposite end of the spectrum, as this trio breathes life into the characters from Uhry's pages. Theirs are fully realized portrayals of three complex people, each of whom grows and changes through their connections with each other over the span of twenty-five years. When the play opens, Crouse is a force as Daisy debates with Boolie over the details of the accident and her rights under the Constitution to invite who she wants into her house. Her resolve is never in doubt with her upright posture and her steely gaze. Even when Hoke shows up on a daily basis, she stubbornly relegates him to sit in the kitchen with her (unseen) housekeeper Idella, opting to take the trolley to the Piggly Wiggly for groceries. Davenport blends the driver's dignity and frustration as Hoke struggles to be useful, and his glee is unabashed when Daisy finally relents and lets him take her to the store.
The pairing of these two pros is seamless. In a space as intimate as the Gloucester Stage, it is possible to observe every eye roll, sigh, and shoulder slump, and their actions and reactions are authentic across the board. Nothing is missing in their nuanced performances of two diverse characters negotiating daily life together. Pemberton's role calls for him to show love, concern, and exasperation with Daisy, and to be in control behind the scenes as he is in cahoots with Hoke. As the years roll by, there is a discernible shift in the relationship between the two men and Ambush underlines it by placing them side by side in front of Boolie's desk during a pivotal scene. Mother and son are both softened and broadened by having Hoke in their lives, while he gains a measure of respect and acceptance which he has long deserved.
Driving Miss Daisy is a drama with comic moments - like real life - and many poignant scenes. Crouse handles them all beautifully, but two stood out for me. Daisy and Hoke are on a road trip to Mobile, causing her to reminisce about the first time her father took her there when she'd never seen the ocean. It was actually the Gulf of Mexico, but Daisy asked permission to dip her hand in the water. With a look of wonder on her face, Crouse is giddy like a little girl when she says, "And then I tasted the salt water on my fingers." The actress is equally convincing in the emotional moment when the very elderly Daisy tells Hoke that he is her best friend. His one word response is "Yassum," but Davenport's demeanor speaks volumes.
Uhry is the only playwright to win the so-called Triple Crown: an Oscar, a Tony, and a Pulitzer Prize for the same work. What makes his play work is that it tells a good story with characters we can care about. We root for them to succeed in the hard work of transforming to fit into each other's lives, to grow and change to keep pace with the rapidly evolving times around them. It remains timely because it is an American story that continues to develop today, a quarter of a century after its world premiere. Ambush and his Triple Crown-worthy cast provide a deluxe vehicle for the journey.