Theater Review: American Stage's Driving Miss Daisy is delightful but weightless

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evolving relationship of white Miss Daisy Werthan of Atlanta with her black chauffeur Hoke Coleburn. When the play begins, it’s 1960, Daisy is 72 and has just survived an auto accident. Her son Boolie insists that she let someone else drive her, and hires Hoke, aged 60, to do the job for $20 a week. At first irascible Daisy is resistant: she goes to the Piggly Wiggly grocery on the trolley, and refuses to let Hoke perform any service that might justify his salary. But slowly she gives way, though she’s terrified that her friends at the Reform Jewish Temple will think that she’s putting on airs by having a chauffeur. As her embarrassment passes, Daisy comes to know Hoke a little. She’s quick to provide help when she learns that he can’t read, and eventually trusts him enough to let him drive her to Alabama. Meanwhile, Hoke lets it be known that he won’t be intimidated by Daisy’s imperious ways. He demands his rights – in one case, to urinate in the bushes when she wants him to hold it in – and he even renegotiates his salary with Boolie by telling him of another woman who’s trying to hire him away. When someone bombs Daisy’s temple, Hoke is quick to share his regrets, and when the United Jewish Appeal is honoring Martin Luther King, Daisy invites Hoke to go with her (he’s not very impressed with the tardiness of the invitation). Hoke doesn’t speak much about the bigotry he faces – a reference to a gas station that won’t let him use the bathroom, a memory of the lynching of a friend’s father when he was a child – but Daisy hardly speaks at all about the rampant anti-Semitism in the “New” South. Finally, Daisy, getting into her 90s, becomes delusional, and Hoke, losing his good eyesight, stops driving. But their connection never ends, and we come to understand that they’ve become family to each other -- or better than family. [dataBox]

Ann Morrison plays Daisy and she’s wonderful in the role. Morrison’s Daisy is bad-tempered, suspicious, terrified, censorious, but also kind, caring, righteous and near-indomitable. Bob Devin Jones is superb as mild-mannered Hoke, who knows how to get his way even while seeming too reticent to do so, and whose poker face still manages to suggest a life of terrible recognitions. Then there’s the talented Steve Garland, whose Boolie is good-hearted, not very indignant, generous and long-suffering (his wife Florine, who’s never seen, appears to be a dominating terror). T. Scott Wooten’s emotionally persuasive direction finds every nuance in Uhry’s dialogue, and Tom Hansen’s fine set, which puts Daisy’s home, Boolie’s office, and a car (two benches) on stage at once, is just about perfect. The three actors are felicitously costumed by Adrin Erra Puente.

Still, Uhry’s capacity to not investigate his subjects is nothing short of amazing. Maybe that’s why the play has made so little impact compared to other Pulitzer winners – there’s more going in, say, one scene of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined than there is in the full 85 minutes of Daisy. But if you want a lovingly undemanding, epically porous chronicle of black and Jewish life 1960-1985, then Driving Miss Daisy is your vehicle. It’s charming, and probably has all the right values – if surfaces can be trusted.

Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy is a lovely but remarkably lightweight drama about subjects so potent they could fuel a hundred more ambitious works of theater. Among the issues gently raised and then dropped are black/Jewish relations, racism in the modern South, Jewish assimilation into Christian culture, the effects of the Civil Rights movement on African-American self-consciousness, and the disaster of old age as it affects both the elderly and their children. I wish I could claim that this celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning play really has much to say, in its muted way, about many of these subjects. But the fine production at American Stage – and one could hardly ask for a better version – makes it abundantly clear that, besides noting their existence, Uhry doesn’t want to weigh in with a perspective of his own. Instead, the serious topics pass by — a bit here, a snippet there — and we’re left to imagine that Uhry is as liberal as we are, and would, if pressed, have many interesting opinions. What those are is anybody’s guess. If this play were any more minimalist, it wouldn’t exist.

Still, there’s one story that’s treated with sustained stage time, and that’s the

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