It’s 1948 and an old woman backs her car through a neighbor’s garage. Her son, rightfully, decides that she’s no longer able to drive and means to hire her a driver, but Daisy Werthan is having none of it. She already has a black maid, and though she says she’s not prejudiced, doesn’t want a black man driving her around. Her son ignores her, and hires Hoke Colburn, an unemployed black driver, to be her chauffeur.
Throughout the next 20 years, Daisy and Hoke will form a tight bond as they experience great social changes. Anti-black racism intersects with anti-Semitism, and matters of class and human dignity are explored.
This production of Alfred Uhrey’s Driving Miss Daisy is directed by David Esbornson. It stars Angela Lansbury as Daisy and James Earl Jones as Hoke. Boyd Gaines plays Daisy’s son, Boolie, and the three actors are the only members of the cast. The production is spare, with minimal staging: a desk and chair, the suggestion of a staircase in the background. For long stretches of the play we see only Lansbury and Jones in a spotlight, with a bench and a wheel to stand in for a car. But for all its simplicity, it’s still very powerful.
Lansbury and Jones’ performances are broader than those of Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in the 1989 movie, but that’s a function of the stage production. Both actors go straight for the heart, drawing us in to these two characters and their often tempestuous relationship. The play touches on the limits of white courage during the civil rights movement, and ends with a comment on the plight of the aged when they can no longer take care of themselves.
It’s a touching production, simply staged, but powerful, grounded by two amazing performances.
Great Performances: Driving Miss Daisy airs Friday, July 17 at 9:00 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9.