When the New York Times’ Ben Brantley reviewed the new revival of Driving Miss Daisy (actually, it’s a Broadway debut—the previous incarnation with Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey was Off-Broadway), he lauded the powerhouse cast of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones but sneered at Alfred Uhry’s script: “…I would see [Redgrave and Jones] in absolutely anything. Even Driving Miss Daisy….”
The play has won numerous awards, as did the terrific 1989 movie version with Freeman and Jessica Tandy, but even so, it’s surprisingly popular to deride it as schmaltzy and even racist. Those who dislike the play might sum it up thusly: Cranky elderly Jewish lady is initially hostile to her shuffling, subservient black chauffeur, but with time they find friendship, respect and even love for each other. It does sound awful on the face of it, smacking of greeting card sensibilities, and it’s accurate enough (except for the characterization of the chauffeur as shuffling and subservient, but more on that later) as far as it goes, but the summation is woefully short of the mark. I don’t doubt that there have been countless community theater productions that have played it exactly that way, but it’s a little like saying that Three Sisters is about three whiny girls who want to go the big city, but can’t ever muster up the gumption to do so.
Don’t get me wrong: Driving Miss Daisy is not Chekhov. It doesn’t change theater as we know it: It doesn’t explore new territory or develop new ideas. The script is conventional in both its structure and its stagecraft, but it’s also finely drawn, beautifully observed, and rich in emotional complexity. Uhry has learned all the right lessons from Chekhov, and he also owes a big debt to Thornton Wilder, who’s Our Town has also been dismissed as sentimental.
The scene people often point to as proof of sappiness is when Daisy, her mind going, says to Hoke, “You’re my best friend.” But this is not a simple declaration that sweeps the past under a rug: It’s a confession of loneliness, an apology for past mistreatment, a lament for missed opportunities, and an expression of gratitude. When the right actress delivers this line, it resonates with innumerable meanings, and Redgrave, like Tandy before her, is the right actress.
As far as the charge of racism goes, Hoke is a black man in the employ of a white man (Daisy’s son Boolie, played by Boyd Gaines), providing chauffeur services to a wealthy white woman, and he is subservient (up to a point) to both of them. But who in this world isn’t subservient to their employer and to their customers? It’s the nature of having a job. And it’s the moments where Hoke doesn’t kowtow, where he asserts his own worth and dignity, that make the play work: when, on a long drive, over Miss Daisy’s objections, he pulls the car over “to make water,” since the restroom at the service station they last stopped at was off-limits to “colored” men, or when he asks Boolie for a raise, responding to Boolie’s first offer of sixty-five dollars a week with “Sounds pretty good. Seventy-five sounds better.”
The play’s most complex, and best scene, concerns a speech by Martin Luther King that Daisy has tickets to. She can’t get her son to accompany her (his business would suffer if the white Atlantans he must deal with knew he was a supporter of King’s), and she’s shocked when Boolie suggests she ask Hoke to accompany her. (Part of her shock is clearly embarrassment over not having thought of it herself.) But she can’t bring herself to ask Hoke outright, and issues him a last-minute non-invitation, which Hoke upbraids her for: “…next time you ask me someplace, ask me regular.” Both of them end up angry at each other, Hoke more justified in his anger, and Miss Daisy more truly angry at herself, but afraid to face that truth.
Race and religion are suffused throughout the play as its characters strive for dignity, either as a black man or a Jewish woman in a culture that devalues them both. Racial violence and the threat of it haunt the play: Daisy’s synagogue is bombed; Hoke recounts a lynching he saw. (Sentimental? The charge seems laughable.) It’s because Uhry doesn’t linger on any of this, doesn’t underline it or revel in it, that I think people undervalue this aspect of the play. He doesn’t step in and wag his finger or exclaim at the horror of it; he portrays people going on with their daily lives in the face of it as best they can, while also dealing with the indignities of old age and failing minds and bodies.
Redgrave and Jones are spectacular in this production, bringing all their insight, skill, and experience to flesh out Uhry’s text. Redgrave cackles silently to herself after having just told Boolie to give her love to Florine, the daughter-in-law Daisy can’t stand. Her body grows more stooped as the years pass, and her voice more cracked. Jones carefully gauges whether it’s okay to shake the hand Boolie has offered him letting you know it’s probably the first time a white man has done such a thing to Hoke. (Surprisingly, I did have some trouble with Jones’ diction at several moments throughout the play: some of his dialogue is hard to hear clearly.) Both Redgrave and Jones are able to project intimacy even in a cavernous Broadway theater. Boyd Gaines, too, does fine work as Boolie, tickled as much as irritated by his mother’s cranky resolve. (Gaines has become an exceptional actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his early work, but in Journey’s End, Gypsy, and now Driving Miss Daisy, he gives performances of immense empathy and real stature.) David Esbjornson’s direction is especially adept with the actors (although, given the cast, his main task was probably staying out of their way), but he employs projections against the back wall (designed by Wendall K. Harrington) that are probably unnecessary, making explicit what’s should be implicit. John Lee Beatty’s scenery isn’t much to look at, but then this play is about the actors: Jones and Redgrave make the world they inhabit fully visible to the audience.
Yes, Driving Miss Daisy is about friendship and love. It’s also about how we can deny those things to ourselves when our own sense of dignity is threatened, when we’re afraid to admit that we need another person. That isn’t sentimentality: That’s art.
Driving Miss Daisy plays at the Golden Theatre in New York and has just been extended to April 9, 2011. For more information, go to www.daisyonbroadway.com.