KPBS AIRDATE: DECEMBER 2, 1998
Alfred Uhry was a 50 year-old, not-so-successful lyricist for Broadway musicals when he went to the theater one night and sat through a play bad enough to inspire him. “I could do better than that if I wrote about my grandmother,” he said. And so he did.
The result was “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, ran three years Off Broadway, and then garnered Oscars in 1989 for Best Picture and for Best Screenplay — which was written by Uhry himself.
Miss Daisy is a cantankerous, Jewish 72 year-old from Atlanta who refuses to face the fact that she’s too old to drive. Despite her vociferous protests, her son hires a chauffeur for her, a 60 year-old black man whose neck is as stiff as hers. Like Uhry’s stubbornly independent grandmother, Miss Daisy has a prickly relationship with the chauffeur, but over the course of 25 years, they grow to be mutually respectful, mutually dependent lifelong companions.
The play is long on talk and short on action, but it’s a genuine heartwarmer, often even a tear-jerker. As these two suspicious, mistrusting, apparent opposites turn into devoted friends, we watch them deal with deep-seated issues of prejudice and identity. The relationship evolves from 1948-1973, against a backdrop of American racism, anti-Semitism and a burgeoning Civil Rights movement. It could be viewed as a sweet, gentle history lesson with emotional overtones.
Up at North Coast Repertory Theatre, the history is clear, the performances are solid, but there’s just no depth to the emotion. Katherine Faulconer is a wonderful Miss Daisy, and Antonio “T.J.” Johnson is terrific and very funny as the chauffeur, Hoke. James Webb does a fine job with the thankless role of Daisy’s son Boolie, who’s merely a springboard for the other two characters and their developing connection.
But each one seems to be in his or her own little world, doing an excellent job of creating a precise and carefully drawn character, without ardently interacting with the others. We don’t really feel the emotional ties, so that at the end, we aren’t really moved or touched, let alone grabbing for our hankies.
Under Joe Powers’ direction, the pace of the piece is so languorous, even for the South, that we feel like we’re watching this relationship develop in real time. The rhythm isn’t helped any by the set, which moves clunkily between the short scenes, contributing to overly long blackouts and a choppy flow, not to mention an apparently dangerous rut center-stage that made me nervous all through the 90-minute evening.
The look is an icy Wedgewood blue, with hints of white lattice-work and pillars, and a huge wheel on the back wall (is that supposed to be a window treatment? A car wheel? Pure decoration? Beats me). There is no warmth or wealth here, though it’s referred to frequently in the script. Each brief little episode is supposed to represent a snapshot, a fleeting memory, but the lighting cues were so tentative on opening night that it looked like a bulb was burnt-out every time a scene changed.
And yet, with all the missing links that could have made this gem really sparkle, the play is still worth seeing. It’s tender, often funny, even educational (in a superficial kind of way). And the performances have the tinge of tarnished gold, which may take on luster as the run continues and the cast settles in.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.