Driving Miss Daisy

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 9, 2013

Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport in "Driving Miss Daisy"
Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport in "Driving Miss Daisy"  (Source:Gary Ng)

"Driving Miss Daisy", by Alfred Uhry, at Gloucester Stage Company through Sept. 22, features a pitch-perfect cast, under Benny Sato Ambush's superb direction.

Originally written in 1987, the play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama the following year and, in a film version, an Oscar for Best Picture. It has since been revived on Broadway (with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the cast), and has traveled to London's West End. It is a play that lives up to its many earned accolades, and its message strongly resonates today.

On one level, it is about relationships. On other deeper levels, it explores how the clashes of those personalities speak of an inherent human need to maintain dignity.

Set during a tempestuous time (1948-1973), it shows how the issues of race relations seep into the characters' lives, whether they want them to or not. It is not an overtly political play - there are references to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the play is set. But we soon learn that politics and the change it brings are inevitable.

We meet Daisy Werthan (Lindsay Crouse), an elderly Southern Jewish woman, her son Boolie (Robert Pemberton), and her African-American chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (Johnny Lee Davenport). Boolie has hired Hoke, despite his mother's protests (she has totaled the car and needs someone to squire her around).

Lindsay Crouse in "Driving Miss Daisy"
Lindsay Crouse in "Driving Miss Daisy"  (Source: Gary Ng)

At first, she ignores Hoke. In early scenes, she bristles whenever he enters the room. But slowly, the relationship warms. Long held negative stereotypes of Jews and blacks (Hoke believes Jews are miserly; Daisy fears blacks are dishonest), dissipate. Emerging from this slow peeling away of exaggerated fears of differences are threads of humanity that bind all three people together.

But let us now praise the talents of the three actors. Ms. Crouse, with her hair frosted and tied in a tight bun at the back of her head, stalks about the set in a long matronly dress that wraps her frame like a shroud. She is, at turns, a scold, steeped in suspicion, overly critical of others and resistant to any suggestions of change or gestures of affection.

Watching her perform in this manner and witnessing the emergence of her more loving traits is a marvel to behold. There is nothing stark about her character's evolution - it must be communicated through vignettes with the other characters, and there are many contentious moments. Ms. Crouse handles each scene with aplomb.

As her chauffeur, Hoke, Johnny Lee Davenport must hold back more than he might wish, since he is introduced to us as a man who has had a long spell of bad luck and unemployment. He is an imposing figure of a man, large in frame and graying at the temples, who has witnessed and been scared by racial inequalities. Yet he slowly gains more confidence to speak his mind, and learns how to turn the tide in his favor, particularly when it comes to negotiations for his livelihood.

Robert Pemberton and Johnny Lee Davenport in "Driving Miss Daisy"
Robert Pemberton and Johnny Lee Davenport in "Driving Miss Daisy"  (Source: Gary Ng)

His performance is understated and restrained, except when it needs to be otherwise. And, during the final scenes, when time has conquered (but not diminished) him, he emerges alongside Ms. Crouse as a person of compassion, an element he exhibits in snippets throughout each vignette.

As Boolie, Robert Pemberton is often in the middle between the two - he is, after all, Hoke's employer - but serves as a soothing presence rather than an irritant. He, too, must exhibit restraint: as the son of a Jewish merchant who served his masters in order to prosper, he avoids political involvement for fear it will not be in his best interests.

This, of course, does not prevent the synagogue of which he and his mother are members from being bombed. But he is not moved to fight for his beliefs, since they are rooted in capitalism, not civil rights. Mr. Pemberton plays his character as wired in this manner, and succeeds in making him likeable, despite these flaws.

The set by Jenna McFarland Lord succeeds admirably: an overstuffed chair to stage left, a mock car at the center of the stage, and, at the back of the stage, Boolie's business office. There are times when the set shakes and rattles - Mr. Davenport is large of frame and sometimes collides with the faux wooden pillars. The costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley are beautifully designed, and the lighting by John R. Malinowski enhances the moods with subtle warmth.

Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, is at Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theater, East Gloucester, Mass., until Sept. 22. For ticket information visit their website at www.gloucesterstage.com.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.