I wasn’t planning to catch this – the Morgan Freeman/Jessica Tandy movie was enough, so I passed on all the other enticing offerings. Yes, the play is beautifully written and quaint, and ends with a touching reminder of how interconnected we really are, but the servile implications and gentility of the Old South – well, let’s just say I was ready to, uhm, let it ride. But the chance to catch Adele Robey and James Foster, Jr. together was enough to get me off my high horse and finally see it again, and I’m so glad I did.
This is not your Mama’s Driving Miss Daisy.
First of all, the opening projections by Tewodross (Teo) Melchishua Williams reflect the African American cultural legacy of the mid-century. Williams’ mellow jazz tunes and images wrap the show in a 1940’s sensibility that eases us into the period. There are images of Dr. Martin Luther King laughing and dressed for Sunday service, Freedom Riders, rural landscapes, musicians, playful youngsters. And yet, quietly tucked in along with the juke joint frivolity are several images of lynchings, so obscure it takes a double-take. It’s a masterstroke way to set the mood.
As the show opens there’s no car in sight—just a desk, a couch on the right and a bench on stage left, a perfect set up to capture the characters in pre-driving mode. Adele Robey as Daisy Werthan bustles in with a spry step and plops down on the couch in defensive mode ready for battle. With the latest mishap of wrecking yet another car, she knows she’s on the losing end of a struggle to retain her last bit of independence—driving—but she’s not going down without a fight. And does she have spunk. Adele Robey grabs the nuances of an elderly feisty woman intent on living her life on her own terms, and making sure you know it.
As her well-meaning and patient son Boolie, Matty Griffiths brings a genial manner to his delivery, always seeing the glass as half full even when it’s draining empty. He listens patiently to his Mom while making the decisions for her welfare with the same gentle care that he apparently uses to deal with an overbearing wife, at least as described by Daisy’s caustic asides.
And what a wonder to see James Foster, Jr. in action again. He enters and we’re transported to an early era that he depicts in his carriage and deportment. Foster as Hoke is ramrod straight as he interviews for the chauffer position, rattling off aspects of his life and characters he’s dealt with along the way. It’s clear that he’s survived hardship but lets nothing get in the way of living a fulfilled and honest life, and so the deal is done. Daisy resists but Hoke maintains a reliable and dependable presence through the years until they find their rhythm together, with and without the latest auto.
Foster can do more with a subtle shift in his expression than anyone I’ve seen in years. As the stoic silent “help,” he lets Miss Daisy’s withering comments slide without a blink, but every once and a while, something will cloud over his face, he’ll erupt in reaction, and Daisy knows it’s time to zip it. Director Ella Davis keeps the tension between these two characters just right in building the relationship in a give and take sway that culminates in the amazing final moments with breathtaking results.
Driving Miss Daisy
closes December 23, 2018
Details and tickets
The car-free initial scene is a nice touch to relay there’s more to the characters than the driving. Once that’s established, then the driving sequences are cleverly set up; the bench and chair are brought centerstage along with a wheel on its own platform. The actors pantomime opening and closing doors, a couple of projections of the passing roadside and voilá—we’re along for the ride. That situation works for a few scenes, but unfortunately after a while becomes wearying. The initial cleverly designed “car” feels more cumbersome with each passing scene and takes a bit of patience to sit through its resets. Just before it reaches the point of diminished return, the characters age out of driving range and the annoyance is more temporary than crucial.
That’s because the story and performances are worth waiting for the scenes unfold. Hoke tends to Daisy’s every need with comforting attentiveness, and she even contributes to his literacy by helping him focus on the sounds of letters. Just like reading, trust happens slowly in tiny progressive steps over time and years. The characters share their thoughts, experiences and ideas with increasing intimacy, including the realities of anti-Semitism and racial segregation, all while maintaining a sheer barrier between themselves– until the touching final moments.
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How could a play set in the 1948 racially segregated South be so topical to the point of being urgent today? Its resurgence in this divided age might be because it shows that no matter how far we’ve come, we still have far to go. The moments of basic integrity between the two very different characters divided by the impenetrable barriers of class and race renew hope for today…or at least tomorrow. The show’s numerous Broadway revivals and the movie is legendary. There’s a reason why the greats have taken their turns behind the wheel or perched on the backseat—Julie Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Angela Landsbury, Brock Peters and James Earl Jones himself.
Yes, Driving Miss Daisy has its share of controversy and skepticism about being lauded for yet another comforting image of black subservience with the Pulitzer and Academy Award. After his incredible performance in the movie Glory, Freeman himself pondered his decision that flatlined him as the stoic, patient, and noble servant for years.
That’s why getting the artistic combination is so important to dig beneath the societal judgment to get to the humanity of ordinary characters with their own foibles dealing with life and with each other the best that they can. This production helps guide our own sensibilities to be part of each other’s stories …and to care. That’s a big and important step, and well worth seeing how that happens on stage with this wonderful ensemble. Just be prepared for soothing mental breaks during the set changes for the ride.
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry . Directed by Ella Davis . Cast: James Foster, Jr., Adele Robey, Matty Griffiths . Set Design— Emily Lotz . Lighting Design— John Alexander . Sound & Projections Design—Tewodross (Teo) Melchishua Williams . Costume Design— Nora Dahlberg . Stage Manager— Rachel Walsh . Produced by Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.