BWW Reviews: Playhouse On Park's DRIVING MISS DAISY a Comfortable Ride
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by Jacques Lamarre
Who knew Connecticut resident Alfred Uhry’s drama Driving Miss Daisy would prove to be surprisingly savvy holiday season counter-programming? While The Bushnell toured in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Hartford Stage reprises A Christmas Carol and TheaterWorks romps through David Sedaris’ The SantaLand Diaries, West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park chooses to focus on a Jewish curmudgeon in need of an attitude adjustment.
Unlike the Grinch, Scrooge and the cranky elf Crumpet, Uhry’s Daisy Werthan isn’t so much in the need of a shot of the Christmas spirit, as much as a gentle nudge on the path to enduring friendship. The fact that Daisy actively bristles at her assimilationist son and daughter-in-laws attempts at Christian holiday cheer only adds to the amusement of the evening. Counterbalancing the generally lily-white Christmas fare on the other local stages, Driving Miss Daisy leavens the outsider nature of a Jew during the Christmas season with an African American man trying to win over the old sourpuss’s latent racism.
Now, anyone familiar with the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and the subsequent Oscar Award-winning film knows that Driving Miss Daisy is not really a holiday show at all (although a few key moments happen at this time of year). Playhouse on Park seems to intuit, however, that its timeless and tart message might be particular apt during the holidays as it highlights the deep divisions that our national psyche constantly strives, and frequently fails, to overcome.
The Playhouse on Park production is not without its flaws, but the current remount is a reminder of what a sly little ride Driving Miss Daisy actually is. While we see Daisy’s gradual melting due to the warmth and persistence of her new (and unwanted) chauffeur, Hoke, the play tackles in miniature such tough subjects as Southern anti-Semitism, racism, classism, and, perhaps most poignantly, aging.
The standout in the cast is, surprisingly, the actor with seemingly the least experience. Playing Hoke Colburn, the African American man hired by Daisy’s son to drive the septuagenarian, Marvin Bell manages to strike all the right notes. A role that could easily descend into a shuffling stereotype, Bell is expressive and exhibits intelligent choices throughout. Not surprisingly, due to his experience as a stand-up comic, the actor also nails all his character’s laugh lines.
Waltrudis Buck certainly appears to be sent from Central Casting for the role of Miss Daisy. With a pinched countenance and tiny frame, Buck seems to be ideal, but oddly appears a bit adrift in the role. Certainly there are moments when her Daisy exhibits the flinty intellect and sharpness that the role requires, but there are many moments, particularly in the beginning, where the role’s hallmarks are muddled. Her final scene, usually devastating and poignant, fails to convey the now-90-year-old Daisy’s fragility and emotional dependence on Hoke.
Similarly, Bristol Pomeroy’s Boolie is a bit off-target. Essentially a slickster with a heart, Pomeroy’s Boolie attempts a few more shades than this character requires. Daisy’s son sees through many of his mother’s manipulations with an exasperated grin, but Pomeroy often rises to her bait. In addition, the scene where Boolie accepts an award from his fellow businessmen is supposed to highlight his shallow assimilationist bent (vital for a subsequent scene where Boolie eschews the opportunity to see Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Jewish fundraiser), but comes off as too authentic and heartfelt.
Director Stevie Zimmerman’s production overall comes off a little soft. Like Our Town, Driving Miss Daisy at first blush appears to be a theatrical piece of comfort food when, in fact, it is a lot thornier than many people realize. The transitions between scenes are often long, silent (no sound designer is credited, although there are sound elements in the piece), and deaden the pacing.
The play calls for a minimalist set and the actors to mime certain activities. The scenes placed on a cramped turntable at the rear of the stage tend to be overstuffed with props and business. The scenes set in the car, solely represented by a front and back seat, require the actors to pretend there is a steering wheel, speedometer, mirrors and doors. The car scenes tend to be more effective, but Zimmerman doesn’t hold the miming conceit all the way through with actors getting out of the car without opening the doors and Hoke crossing over where the motor should be.
Overall, Playhouse on Park’s Driving Miss Daisy provides a worthwhile opportunity to revisit this modern classic in a generally sturdy production.
Photo of Marvin Bell and Waltrudis Buck by Richard Wagner.