Driving Miss Daisy
Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the story begins one day in 1948 when a prickly, 72-year-old Jewish widow, Daisy Werthan, crashes her car. Deemed too old to drive, her son hires her a chauffeur, an African-American named Hoke Colburn. Daisy and Hoke’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, but as times change across the course of a 25 year backdrop of prejudice, inequality and civil unrest, a profound and life-altering friendship blossoms.
It’s more than 30 years since the play written by Alfred Uhry & the award winning film first gained its reputation and this celebration tour is impeccable, stripped back to its essentials.
This is a perfectly balanced cast, Sian Phillips as Miss Daisy captures the fierce but fragile nature of this woman whose humble beginnings and comfortable retirement dictate her relationship with the outside world. Derek Griffiths as her driver Hoke Colburn who ages and changes along with her is terrific, and the two of them get the accents and attention to detail just right. The eye contact, the pauses, the deference, the challenges, are all superb reflections of the South Georgia of its day, and although Griffiths gets the best laughs, it’s the careful and inevitable descent into delicate brittle old age which Phillips nails with utter grace and charm. Griffiths and Phillips have a believable relationship which starts with grudging good manners and ends with heart-breaking tenderness and care. They both look out and look after each other and become each other’s greatest friends and this ongoing friendship – which jumps through decades as the play progresses – is handled well by this stellar pairing. Teddy Kempner portrayal of Daisy’s son Boolie is a masterclass in deferral as well, it’s understated and allows the true focus of this story to remain on the principal pair whilst giving the plot just enough of a push along and keeping the narrative tension pleasantly taught each time he appears. These three are directed by Richard Beecham in a uncomplicated way allowing the splendid acting to glow.
The play is a lovely handling of a horrible subject at a distance and although it’s been truncated there’s still enough ugliness in the world that these characters inhabit to bring the horror home. Both characters hold stereotyped attitudes which are challenged by the actions and behaviour of the others experience and then the connections of them both belonging to minorities being the targets of hate: the bombing of Daisy’s synagogue, the lynching of the father of Hoke’s childhood friend, the pernicious and pervading WASP attitudes and subtle white supremacy attitudes are all explored from different points of view, and all with a sheen of good southern manners.
Although the play was written more than thirty years ago, it’s soft but persistent message of hope, working hard to challenge prejudice and calling it out for what it is still relevant. It’s the steely softness of this play which makes it relevant, it’s so utterly polite in many ways and that masks the ugliness of racial segregation and the casual racist attitudes of the time.
My companion left welled up with tears, Phillips’s portrayal of Daisy in her twilight days is beautiful, touching & tender, capturing her humour and fragility at the same time and the final scene of Hoke feeding Miss Daisy her Thanksgiving pie is beautiful and touch perfect.
The set is simple, and subtle lights, sound scape and music give ambience and setting without any fuss at all, the car is a wheel on a stand, but it really doesn’t matter with this pair in the driving seat of this play. There were a few sound hiccups and both the first act and end of the play were hasty; a slow lights down and moment to reflect would have ended much better than a hasty leap up for the applause.
Driving Miss Daisy reminds us of the cycles of human hatred and violence, how we can change them by changing ourselves, that little things matter and that the horrible times of the past are still relevant to us living today, more so considering the ugly rise in intolerance and hatred once again, but it’s a beautiful tender exploration of trust friendship and uplifting to watch.
Until Saturday, September 23