Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” is virtually encoded in the DNA of Atlanta. Based on the playwright’s grandmother and her black chauffeur, the story unfolds as a kind of tour of city landmarks and key moments in its history, from 1948 to 1973.
Whether she wants him to or not, Hoke Colburn escorts the irascible Daisy Werthen from her Druid Hills homes to the Euclid Avenue Piggly Wiggly for cans of salmon and cleaning supplies. Together they find themselves on a collision course with the infamous 1958 bombing of The Temple on Peachtree. Together they arrive at a fancy 1964 Biltmore Hotel gala celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize.
But more than that, they become best friends and discover that the capacity for love and understanding is a universal matter, even if the path of racial harmony, then and now, is a road less traveled.
Uhry’s 1987 off-Broadway play won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama and became a 1989 Hollywood blockbuster that scooped up four Oscars, including best picture. In 1988, Robert J. “Bob” Farley brought “Miss Daisy” home to Atlanta for an Alliance Theatre production that set the playhouse record for longest-running show and later traveled to China and the Soviet Union.
Farley died in 2017. His wife, Anita, took command of Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre (GET), which the couple founded together in 1992. And now Laurel Crowe, their daughter, has revived the familiar chestnut her father made famous. (Remember what I said about DNA.)
As director, Crowe has the good fortune of working with Jill Jane Clements (Miss Daisy), Rob Cleveland (Hoke) and William S. Murphey (Miss Daisy’s frustrated son, Boolie), actors who have performed in several Bob Farley-directed productions of “Miss Daisy” over the years. They know how to drive the car.
Crowe’s staging is a lovely tribute to a sweet play. Too sweet for some.
Though the cast is quite fine and Clements’ account of the nursing home-bound Daisy in the final moments of her long and complicated life still chokes me up, this play may be starting to show its age just a tad.
To be certain, Uhry’s tale tugs at the heartstrings. It also reduces a welter of complex racial issues into a simplistic formula that Hollywood can bank on (see “Green Book”), and which makes white audience members feel good about themselves. The wildly popular “To Kill a Mockingbird” took a similar approach, albeit messier.
But what to do when Atticus Finch is unmasked as a racist, as he was in Harper Lee’s long-suppressed “Mockingbird” first draft, “To Kill a Watchman”?
In “Daisy,” Hoke trots out some loaded Jewish stereotypes to a bemused Boolie Werthan, and though Miss Daisy declares again and again that she is not prejudiced, one can plainly see that she is. As Wesley Morris pointed out in an astute and provocative recent New York Times essay “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies?”, Hoke works for the Werthans out of economic necessity. “Green Book” flips it so that a white man gets paid to drive a black musician through the American South.
As it happens, GET’s lovingly crafted “Daisy” revival comes to the fore at a moment of intense political and racial reckoning. Just as Hoke starts the ignition and begins a delicate dance of accelerating and braking, the play affords an opportunity to start a conversation that moves us forward while keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror of the past, smudges and all.
More than three decades after “Daisy” glided onto stage and screen, it still has something to say. The ride may not always be as smooth and comfortable as some might prefer. Neither is real life. The journey is bumpy, the potholes omnipresent. For us to get anywhere, the soul work — the self-scrutiny — must be ongoing.
To my mind, “Daisy” is an elegant, well-oiled machine that is likely to survive the chinks of time.
Hoke and Daisy: Together … again?
Why not? Who knows what surprises they have yet to reveal?
“Driving Miss Daisy”
7:30 Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 4 p.m. Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 17. Tickets start at $30-$55. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260. get.org
Bottom line: A vintage ride.
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