Topical plays usually show their age after a while when the topic is no longer relevant or the characters become dated, but neither is the case with the North Carolina Theatre‘s production of Driving Miss Daisy, starring Sandy Duncan. In a run that spans May 2-11, 2014, Duncan leads the small cast in a delightfully dainty version of the show that originally opened Off Broadway in 1987 and has since been performed all over the world, as well as transitioning to the movies.
With only three roles, the play is an intimate one, well suited for the cozy A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater with its 600 seats, all with close proximity to the stage. Each of the three roles requires actors capable of reaching that audience with facial movements and acting chops that would be lost in a much larger theater, such as the Durham Performing Arts Center. Director Eric Woodall, whose directing credits include the stage productions of Mamma Mia, and his staff have manipulated the stage well by breaking it into thirds to accommodate the three areas within which the characters act (the main character, Daisy Werthan’s house; her son Boolie’s office; and the various automobiles that Daisy and her chauffeur/friend Hoke Colborn ride in throughout the years); and with a minimum of stage props, the uninterrupted one-act play moves seamlessly from one setting to the other.
Alfred Uhry, the author of the play, is one of the few playwrights to receive an Academy Award®, a Tony Award®, and a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. Driving Miss Daisy is the first of a trilogy of plays he wrote which he calls the Atlanta Trilogy, plays that dealt with the Jewish-American experience of the 20th century.
The play premiered Off-Broadway, then two years later, Uhry wrote the screenplay for the movie version of the play, which garnered nine Oscar® nominations during the year it was released.
The play deals with racism and stereotyping issues that still resonate with today’s audiences because of the ways in which the characters deliver their unvarnished expectations of each other. Hoke (played by Kevyn Morrow) believes that all Jewish people are rich, Daisy expects her help will steal from her, and her son Boolie (played by Bob Hess) is an ageist who believes his mother can no longer care for herself. Each of the three characters move through their own arcs, coming to realize that what they originally believed to be true of each other is ultimately false. None of the three are mean people or vicious racists, which I believe is part of the reason this play has withstood the test of time. Instead, they are regular people lulled into trusting that stereotypes are true and not bothering to question them until they find themselves in strong relationships that prove the stereotypes to be totally incorrect.
When Miss Duncan first graces the stage, it is difficult to tell it is her. At 68, her publicity shots appear to be of a much younger woman and any photos on the Internet also show that must have the same magic as Peter Pan, a character for which she is fondly remembered. Though her voice has the timbre of an aging Southern lady, she is lithe and slim, moving with eases on the stage. Her scene with her son, Boolie (Hess) is full of perfectly timed comedic lines where she asserts her energy with a definitive “no” whenever Boolie suggests that she no longer be allowed to drive. That stubborn streak continues for the first week after Boolie hires Hoke; and if not for Hoke’s (Morrow) calm determination, her new vehicle and chauffeur may have remained inert in the driveway.
Wisely, Hoke allows Miss Daisy her idiosyncracies, as does Boolie (his reaction to her crotchety remarks is simply “You’re a doodle, Mama.”); and though the men believe throughout the 25-year span the play covers that they are taking care of Daisy, she is the one taking care of them. Boolie teaches her that she is wrong when she believes Hoke has stolen a can of her salmon, and Hoke himself teaches her a lesson when he brings her a replacement can without being asked. Daisy teaches Hoke, both figuratively and philosophically, when she gifts him with a book one Christmas. “Jews don’t have any business giving Christmas presents,” she says when she hands him a book, “so this isn’t a present.” She proceeds to teach him how to write, assuring him right off the bat that he knows how to read since he already knows the alphabet.
The trips Hoke and Daisy take determine our view of their world. Daisy doesn’t want her friends to see she has a driver when she goes to the store because she’s concerned about how they’ll see her, even though Hoke points out that there are several cars parked right beside Miss Daisy’s and that he’s been chatting to the drivers all the time she was in the store. When he takes her home one day, they have to stop in traffic because her synagogue has been bombed; and when they attempt to take a trip out of state, they become lost and both are terrified to be in an unknown area, especially since they are essentially an interracial couple.
Through the years Hoke and Daisy deepen their connection for each other, developing an honest and warm affection that delivers them right through to the nursing home where Daisy spends her last years. When she has a frightening spell in which she can’t remember where she is, it’s Hoke to whom she turns, and it is Hoke she calls friend.
All three of the performers in this show are equally strong and comfortable within their characters. Sandy Duncan displays her ability to move quickly from spit and sass to a more complicated scene that demands a flash of anger and an underlying misunderstanding. Kevyn Morrow’s Hoke is both bumbling and humorous, compassionate and caring. He seems to have drawn from Morgan Freeman’s version of the character; but he does not mimic the other actor, instead showing his extensive Broadway acting chops by creating his own understanding of how the African-American driver would have handled his white Jewish boss. And native Kentuckian Bob Hess’s Boolie is both the man in charge of his mother and wife, as well as the guy responsible for keeping both strong women happy. He has both a strong sense of comedic timing and enthusiasm that almost makes Dan Akroyd’s portrayal of the same character in the film appear cartoonish.
Driving Miss Daisy may have been written almost 30 years ago, but the themes of racial misunderstandings, human dignity, parental care, and unlikely friendships will probably still be relevant in another 30 years. If we have dignified actors like these three still available to portray the leading characters, this play will last a long time.
SECOND OPINION: May 4th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/05/simple-staging-allows-the-story-to-shine-in-driving-miss-daisy/; May 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer interview with Sandy Duncan, conducted by David Menconi: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/05/03/3828979/sandy-duncan-ages-into-driving.html; April 29th Raleigh, NC WNCN interview with Sandy Duncan, conducted by Valonda Calloway for “My Carolina Today”: http://www.wncn.com/story/25379254/sandy-duncan-in-driving-miss-daisy; and April 16th Raleigh, NC Wake Living (quarterly) preview: http://www.wakeliving.com/News.aspx?li=11756. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 1st Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/05/sandy-duncan-stars-in-driving-miss-daisy-at-nct/.)
The North Carolina Theatre presents DRIVING MISS DAISY, starring Sandy Duncan at 7:30 p.m. May 4, 7:30 p.m. May 6-9, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 10 and 11 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $56.75-$78.30 (including fees).
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/844810.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941, ext. 6949, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/group-sales.
SHOW: http://nctheatre.com/shows/driving-miss-daisy and http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/event/drivingmissdaisy-4044.
PRESENTER: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/North-Carolina-Theatre/24276860186, and https://twitter.com/nctheatre.
BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE 1: There will be post-show discusstions after the 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6th, and Thursday, May 8th, performances; and a post-show conversation after the 2 p.m. Saturday, May 10th, performance will be moderated by City of Raleigh Museum executive director Ernest Dollar and feature local civil rights pioneer Joe Holt, who was the first African-American student to try to integrate the Wake County Public School System.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. will audio describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, May 10th, performance.
Driving Miss Daisy (1987 Off-Broadway hit, 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner, and 2010 Broadway hit): http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&id=1345 (Internet Off-Broadway database), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=488274 (Internet Broadway database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driving_Miss_Daisy_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/driving-miss-daisy (New Georgia Encyclopedia).
Alfred Uhry (Atlanta, GA-born New York City playwright and screenwriter, born 1936): http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/alfred-uhry-b-1936 (New Georgia Encyclopedia), http://thefsw.org/page/members/elected-members/alfred-uhry (Fellowship of Southern Writers profile) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Uhry (Wikipedia).
Driving Miss Daisy (1989 film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097239/ (Internet Movie Database) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driving_Miss_Daisy (Wikipedia).
Eric Woodall (NCT guest director): http://www.broadwayworld.com/people/Eric-Woodall/ (BroadwayWorld.com bio) and https://www.facebook.com/eric.woodall.98 (Facebook page).
Sandy Duncan (NCT star): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0242098/ (Internet Movie Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=38693 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandy_Duncan (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.