Dallas — There’s something simple, sturdy and enduring about Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, and the Dallas Theater Center’s revival at the Kalita Humphreys Theater is a reminder of what we liked about this play in the first place. It’s a heart-tugger without being sloppily sentimental, and a moral poke in the ribs without being preachy.
And it still gets the laughs, too.
Director Joel Ferrell has done well to remember the rule about reviving a well-loved play: first, do no harm. This is Uhry’s tight and economical original script, played straight by a fine cast, with wittily period costumes from Claudia Stephens and a many-staired, revolving set design from Peter Hicks that makes this static play move. And that’s about all you need to succeed with this one.
Annalee Jefferies is fierce and funny as Daisy Werthan, an older, well-off (but don’t call her rich!) Jewish widow in post-WWII Atlanta. She’s the terror of her only son Boolie (James Crawford), and loudly opposed to him hiring 60-ish “colored man” Hoke Coleburn (Hassan El-Amin) to drive her after she wrecks a new car. Brought up poor, on dinners of “grits and gravy,” Miss Daisy taught school for years to earn a living. She’s afraid of losing her independence, and frets that a chauffeur will make friends think “I put on airs."
Jefferies wisely doesn’t try to soften the edges of this flinty, smart, stubborn-as-hell old woman. Uhry once described his grandmother (a partial source for the character) as having “absolutely no sense of humor about herself, and it makes her funny.” Jefferies’ Miss Daisy never cracks a smile, and that is funny—but she’s evolving, in her own way. At the play’s start she says black servants are “like little children”; by the early ‘60s, she’s badgering her son to come with her to a speech by Dr. King. Daisy doesn’t put her trust in much, we can tell, but she starts to trust Hoke. And Jefferies’ understated, touching, sometimes humorous portrayal of Daisy’s aging (by the end she’s in her 90s) gets some knowing nods from the audience.
As Hoke, Hassan El-Amin is a match for Miss Daisy from the start. We sense there are lots of wheels turning in the head of this dignified, if uneducated, old gent. Hoke needs the job, and he’ll hang on tight, even if Miss Daisy wants to “flap around” about everything he does. Slowly, they become travelers together, moving through the years. Hoke turns up even when the ice storm hits. Daisy helps him turn letters into words. El-Amin keeps us laughing at the canny strategies Hoke uses on his irritable passenger—but when he has to stand up for himself, he does. It’s a memorable moment.
Crawford as Boolie is clearly amused by Mama: “You’re a doodle,” he tells her, laughing his way out of yet another mother-son conflict. Crawford plays all the contradictory notes in this cautious southern businessman: he’s a loving son and husband, but caught between his mother’s commitment to their insular Jewish community and his (also Jewish) wife’s desire to throw Christmas parties and assimilate. We don’t always agree with his choices; but if Boolie simply “goes along to get along,” Crawford’s light touch and humor still draw us in. We like the son because he cares about his mother—and plays fair with Hoke.
What separates Driving Miss Daisy from a more typical “relationship” story about age and family is its setting—the Jim Crow south from 1948 to 1973. In the post-World War II years, the interplay between southern blacks and whites (with Jews occupying a confusing middle ground) had so many rules and customs it looks to us now like some strange Kabuki theater. No sudden moves, no new notions…or the whole place could go up in flames. Daisy, Boolie and Hoke are part of that strange world, though Hoke may be the only one who sees it clearly. He knows that “light or dark”—Jewish or black—doesn’t make much difference to the bigots, who’d like to be rid of them all.
Playwright Uhry was almost 50 years old when he wrote Driving Miss Daisy, his first play—and the first time he’d taken the old advice to “write what you know.” He’d been a songwriter for Frank Loesser, a lyricist and librettist on a few musicals, even had one semi-hit in a musical version of Eudora Welty’s story The Robber Bridegroom. But Uhry didn’t hit his stride until he began to wrestle with a very specific past: his family’s long history of living both as southerners and as Jews.
Miss Daisy won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Two 1997 Tony Awards followed for The Last Night at Ballyhoo, his second Atlanta play; and Uhry won the Academy Award for his screenplay for the 1989 Miss Daisy film. Uhry wrote the book for the 2001 musical, Parade, a story based on the murder trial of a young Jew in 1913 Georgia—a case with a connection to Uhry’s family.
“I grew up with a chip on my shoulder,” Uhry told the Jerusalem Post in a 2010 interview. “Being Jewish was some sort of defect that you had to overcome like being lame or being blind.” For much of his life Uhry, as he says in Ballyhoo, would gladly have “kissed my elbow and turned into an Episcopalian.”
Into the script of Driving Miss Daisy Uhry poured all the clash and confusion he felt in trying to come to terms with his Jewish heritage and his southern culture. This welcome DTC production spotlights all the levels on which this play works: as a history lesson about where we once were and how far we’ve come; a recognition that we’re still fighting the too-human tendency to label some groups as “other” and less than ourselves; and a reminder than even in hard and complicated times, the simple pull of friendship can make all the difference.