Once seen mostly as a sweet, sometimes fascinating character study, Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has gradually become a subject of controversy, in much the way that “The Help” has. The genre, which tends to view the segregated south through the lens of the humanity created by personal interaction between the traditional white elite and their patient African-American domestics, has kind of had its day. That is, if one still plays those parts with that tendency to pigeonhole its participants.
What seems to set the new rendition of Uhry’s play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse apart from some others is the essential maturity of all the characters. This Daisy is terrified of being alone and covering it with bravado. This Hoke is a shy but manly figure whose deference is more to infirmity than color. This Boolie genuinely loves his mother, “gets” Hoke, and is personally cheered by the relationship his mother has with her confidante.
Director Christian Lebano, realizing this may not be an easy show for some, has even included in the program a set of questions for people to use as discussion starters after the play is done. It’s an acknowledgement of both the touching nature, and the baggage, of this play.
Still, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains, at heart, a play about distinct and interesting individuals. Impressive actors can make this piece what they will, and this is most certainly the case here.
Mary Lou Rosato ages with great physical accuracy as Miss Daisy, moving as an aged woman would while giving a refreshing balance of crochety-ness, underlying care, and subliminal fear to the part. Even the very end – a tough element of this play which is rarely done with subtlety – has a startling truth to it, which makes it particularly human.
Willie C. Carpenter gives Hoke more than just the usual dignity, but a kind of presence which lets him look Daisy’s son Boolie in the eye. These are not equals, perhaps, but these are both men who understand that the differences in their social standing are societal more than personal. Carpenter infuses Hoke with that manliness, and – once again – accurate view of the aging process, which make him Daisy’s rock as much as Daisy’s driver.
Perhaps most surprising is Brad Reed’s Boolie. Boolie is usually played as a classic “trying-to-fit-in Jewish Good Ol’ Boy.” Reed’s new spin on the part doesn’t humor or patronize his mother, but rather walks the delicate balance between his love of and identification with her and the realities of his business life in the Atlanta of his day. He gets her. He gets Hoke. He even sometimes seems a tiny bit envious of their ability to live honestly themselves. This portrait ties the whole piece together in interesting ways: a new view, if you will, of the entire proceeding.
Kudos also go to the show’s production values. Gary Wissman’s blissfully simple set keeps the pace of the play (which is performed without intermission) moving right along. Kristen Kopp’s costumes are accurate right down to Daisy’s shoes – impressive for such a small theater. Simple polish seems to be the hallmark of the whole production.
So, take a look at this “Driving Miss Daisy.” Though it remains admittedly controversial, a chance for a new window into such a piece is always useful. And that’s what this production offers: a new window, a new slant on something which has often gotten either too cosy or too disquietingly stereotypical. Whether you agree or disagree with the play or the interpretation, the discussion to follow can be a fine exercise all on its own.