If there is something that can be called a ‘triple crown’ for writers, Alfred Uhry possesses it. He is the only American author to have won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and an Academy Award – and yes, I am pea-green with envy.
It was the now classic vehicle “Driving Miss Daisy” which chauffeured him home with both the Tony for his stage play and an Oscar for the screenplay, the surprise hit of 1989 with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. But this column reviews only stage plays, so we’ll turn our attention to Fredericksburg.
Riverside Dinner Theatre boasts its second non-musical production with this scenic character tour. Just three actors take us for the drive – including the dazzling Ms. Karen Grassle, formerly of the TV series “Little House on the Prarie.” Directed by Rick Hammerly, the play flows without intermission in a gentle progression of starts, pauses, turns, and discoveries.
For as much as happens beneath the surface, this is a show which, when viewed by the young and the restless, might inspire puzzled complaints that “nothing happens.” To which those of us who have perfected our vaguely superior air might respond. “Yes it does – you just can’t see it.”
Uhry has indeed perfected the art of telling character stories. Not so much plot driven, “Driving Miss Daisy” focuses a sympathetic microscope on Southern Jews – their habits, contradictions, and peculiar prejudices. Take one elderly set-in-her-ways Jewish lady from Atlanta, take away her car keys, and force upon her a middle-aged black chauffeur. Stir for twenty years and see what you get.
Ms. Grassle as the cranky and conflicted Miss Daisy turns in a performance that balances humor with sympathy. Impatient with life’s intrusions and furious with the debilitations of age, she steadfastly avoids the trap of cute-old-ladyhood even as she allows the occasional moment of tenderness to emerge. Her physical work, aging from a healthy if slightly confused 72 to a frail 95 is subtle and masterly.
Bill Grimmette gives an extraordinary performance as Hoke Colburn, who drives Miss Daisy even as he is sometimes driven by her. There is a delicate layering in the simple, wise-to-the-world black chauffeur of the 1948 South as he does what he must do to live, and patiently awaits the blossoming of true Civil Rights. While Daisy, who once taught school, is chauffeured by Hoke, who can barely read, it is he who deciphers the writing on the wall while she is complacently blind to her own “soft” prejudices. Their strange partnership, sketched in a series of short, pithy scenes, blooms over twenty-three years into the oddest – and most deeply attached – of odd couples. Grassle and Grimmette together are mesmerizing to watch as they age and grow ever closer.
More problematic is Daisy’s son, Boolie, played by Alan Hoffman. He is the affectionate and dutiful son who hired Hoke in the first place and must be both the voice of reason with his mother and the voice of encouragement for Hoke. (He must also deliver with credibility the rather cringe-worthy line “You’re a doodle, Mama!”) Mr. Hoffman has proven his comic cred, but plays Boolie with a lack of nuance and mannered broad brush optimism of a celebrity D.J. The Big Bopper comes to mind. His mood and delivery are always the same – distracted but amused – whether he is negotiating a raise for Hoke or facing his mother’s undeniable dementia.
When Booley begs off attendance to the Martin Luther King dinner, an event at which all of white Atlanta society can demonstrate its open-mindedness, he suggests his mother take Hoke instead. Daisy’s scoffing reaction speaks silent volumes about the true state of prejudice, even among the most well-meaning people. Hammerly wisely directs this scene with a whisper touch.
Chris Raintree’s set design employs area staging against a backdrop of ornate wooden lattice. Beyond this, projected scenery describes everything from the interior of Daisy’s house to the field where she and Hoke stop to picnic. A long progression of cars is represented in one simple contraption of two seats and a steering wheel, but the subtlety of Hoke’s driving and the vehicle’s movements bring it to life.
Costumes by Gaye Law and Michael Jarett’s lighting design support the everyday working realities of the story, and the slide Blues guitar riffs between scenes evoke a faint illusion of sunburned fields and lonely railroad tracks.
“Driving Miss Daisy” took everyone by surprise when it first appeared twenty-seven years ago, but its power to charm and engage has not diminished. The quiet, non-dramatic final moment illustrates not only Uhry’s gift for understatement, but the sometimes unlikely but always beautiful face of love.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critic’s Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Driving Miss Daisy”
Where: Riverside Dinner Theatre, 95 Riverside Pkwy., Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.org
Playing through Nov. 6