Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Taking Miss Daisy out for a drive in Gloucester

Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport in Driving Miss Daisy.  Photo: Gary Ng

If you haven't noticed, it's beginning to feel like "That 80's Show" on the local theatre scene.  The New Rep just closed Amadeus, and now they're reviving Elephant Man. In the interim, the Reagle Players mounted Les Miz.

And now Gloucester Stage has taken Alfred Uhry's Tony, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Driving Miss Daisy, out for a spin with several of its most accomplished stars. The results are technically impeccable - the accents and characterizations here are among the best I've seen recently, and clearly the production deeply touched the (all-white) audience I saw it with on opening night. But I sometimes wondered whether director Benny Sato Ambush's take on this gentle ode to how enlightened Southerners negotiated their racial crisis wasn't itself a little too gentle. This is, I think, the mildest version of this mild play I've ever seen; to my mind, the ride that Ambush has engineered is almost too smooth.

Not that you'd ever expect much real racial tension from Uhry's crowd-pleaser;  in fact this valentine to the author's own upbringing (like the eponymous Miss Daisy, the playwright hails from a liberal Jewish family in Atlanta, a background he continued to mine in later scripts) makes the elegiac To Kill A Mockingbird almost look like Invisible Man.  

But I've never been one to diss this particular play, because it has its virtues.  Yes, both the crotchety Miss Daisy and long-suffering Hoke, the African-American chauffeur who remains loyal to her through her final years, are obvious constructs, and yes, the play is utterly episodic: even epochal events such as Hoke's learning to read, or the bombing of Miss Daisy's synagogue, are exploited for momentary theatrical effect and then dropped; they're just more gentle dabs of theatrical color on a kind of mosaic designed to enshrine the lovableness of the enlightened South - why, even these people's servants couldn't help but love them in the end!

That in brief is the rap against Driving Miss Daisy.  And it's not entirely wrong. But of course the craft of the script has its compensations.  Like many a memory play, it's keenly observed, and to be honest, it's rarely as sentimental as it sounds; indeed, its restraint is part of what makes it affecting. Uhry also accurately evinces a world in which many things go unstated, even terrible things and great injustices - it is understood by everyone onstage that this is simply the way things are; the challenge is to live as civilized a life as possible despite the way things are.

And Uhry does secret within the workings of his script a few subtly caustic observations.  Few people notice, for instance, that Miss Daisy's son Boolie has married a Republican climber, who at first is only criticized for consorting with Episcopalians, but eventually claws her way to the Republican National Committee, where no doubt she presides over the implementation of the "Southern Strategy," the racist program which is still operating in extremis in America today. So even as Miss Daisy embraces the loyal Hoke at the finish, another wing of her family is scheming to extend his oppression; the two thus end up in a private emotional place that is sealed off perforce from Daisy's own offspring.  A truly great production of Driving Miss Daisy would limn such developments, unspoken as they may be.

Director Ambush seems disinterested in such ironies, however, and seems to harbor no Obama-era revisionist impulse toward the pieties of the play, either. Nor does he conjure much in the way of outright conflict between his two stars, Lindsay Crouse and Johnny Lee Davenport. But he has encouraged both actors to construct deeply realized individual portraits, and they basically have gone to town with the parts (after all, Driving Miss Daisy is literally a vehicle). Crouse proves less highly strung than most Daisies, and her decline is less precipitous; but she has a memorable imperiousness, and the gentleness beneath her gentility is in the end deeply touching. And she shares an obvious connection with Davenport, who offers a simpler, more straightforward Hoke than those raised on Morgan Freeman's self-aware performance in the film may expect. But he too has many superb (if consistently underplayed) moments, and both stars are supported ably by Robert Pemberton, who as the good-ole-boy Boolie seemed freer than I've ever seen him.  So in pure performance terms, this production of Uhry's play counts as a Rolls, even if it never drives Miss Daisy anywhere unexpected.

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