Has there ever been a Pulitzer-winning play as brief, low-key and unassuming as Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy”?
This three-person drama passes by in vignettes of six or eight minutes, without intermission, and ends in less than an hour and a half. Lives onstage proceed without serious interruption, let alone turmoil, whatever may happen offstage.
Yet by the end, Uhry has created a relationship between crusty Daisy Werthan, a white Jew from the upper middle class in Atlanta, and Hoke Colburn, the black man who chauffeurs her and then comes to care for her between 1948 and 1973. We’re aware of their differences in class, race and history but also their similarities: streaks of independence and intractability, demands for respect, outspokenness that raises listeners’ eyebrows.
And by the end, after we’ve heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and a lynching from Hoke’s boyhood and the bombing of a synagogue, we’re left with a small act of charity: The now-aged Hoke feeds the nearly incapable Daisy a piece of pie.
Theatre Charlotte has revived the play simply and successfully. Chris Timmons’ single set reveals just enough of Daisy’s home and son Boolie’s office for the action to succeed.
A pair of car seats in mid-stage bridges the two physically, just as Hoke creates a bridge between the mother who can no longer manage a car safely and the son who hires him to drive her around against her wishes. (We don’t see Hoke reporting on Daisy’s condition to Boolie, but that’s implicit.)
Director Tim Ross doesn’t hurry scenes along or try to give them extra weight. Hoke’s brief recounting of the lynching, delivered like so many speeches behind the wheel of Daisy’s auto, disturbs us without having to be dressed up.
John W. Price makes Hoke grounded and good-natured; his stubbornness and smile go together naturally. Joe Copley’s Boolie is agreeable yet slightly sad; his matter-of-fact explanation of the reason a Jewish businessman in the South can’t afford to support Martin Luther King creates the uncomfortable feeling it should.
The surprise for most theatergoers will be Vicki Rose, who makes her Theatre Charlotte debut (and Charlotte debut, if I’m right). She not only hits the right feisty notes but carefully and touchingly delineates Daisy’s decline from 72 to 97. Rose realizes that old age comes in stages, and she shows us each one.
Though theatergoers love this play, critics haven’t always been kind to it. It didn’t reach Broadway until 2010, 23 years after its off-Broadway premiere, and that production earned mixed reviews and just one Tony nomination. In this case, the audiences are right: “Miss Daisy” may be small, but it’s also mighty in its quiet way.