Driving Miss Daisy is an American story, and Alfred Uhry's script is storytelling at its best. The play won Uhry the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and for good reason. It's a look back in time, and a look in the mirror. It's a snapshot of who we were then, and who we could be now. It's a story of dignity and friendship, a story about a time (1948-1973) when race, religion and society were changing.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Director Scott RC Levy know how to tell a compelling story; Driving Miss Daisy is ample proof. Uhry's script is given the full FAC treatment in this gorgeous production.
Daisy Werthan (Billie McBride) is a cranky 72-year-old white Jewish lady. As the show opens, she has just demolished her car, apparently putting it into reverse instead of drive. Her son, Boolie (Steve Emily), insists on hiring a driver for her. Daisy objects, but ultimately relents.
Hoke (Joseph W. Lane) spends his first six days as a driver sitting in Daisy's kitchen; she won't let him take her anywhere.
Daisy eventually, and grudgingly, lets Hoke drive her to the Piggly Wiggly. It's a long, slow process, but Daisy and Hoke learn to coexist. There are a lot of dramatic moments between the two, but the most important is when Daisy is a witness to the evil power of prejudice. As Hoke drove her to temple on the sabbath, they are diverted by police. The temple had been bombed. Hoke gets it, but Daisy is confounded.
Billie McBride has played this role before. She knows Miss Daisy backward, forward and inside out. Daisy came from poverty, and she doesn't let us forget it. McBride's defense of Daisy's simple roots and her claims not to be prejudiced are convincing even when she seems to take pleasure as a master to her servant Hoke.
McBride is especially effective as Daisy when she teaches Hoke to read. "Of course you can read. You just don't know you can." It's tough love, meted out by a determined McBride to her illiterate companion. McBride can make us smile or wince; Daisy can treat Hoke like a man at times but like a servant at others. Even when she's dominant, though, she has a quiet charm to go with the prickly personality.
Hoke, for his part, is a man straddling two cultures, and Joseph Lane skillfully displays the awkwardness that entails. Driving Miss Daisy is really more about Hoke than Daisy. He's a hard-working family guy who accepts the status quo but slowly changes it from within. He does so with respect, but also with occasional acts of defiance. Lane's performance is especially poignant when he stands up to Daisy on a long drive. She puts her needs first; Lane puts his first. He stands up for his dignity as a man, pulling off a bloodless palace coup. It's a critical moment that Lane delivers with exceptional finesse and power.
Boolie also straddles both sides of the racial divide. He hires Hoke to be his mother's chauffeur. Steve Emily is careful about who he hires, but shows no prejudice whatsoever in the process. He treats Hoke with respect, and defends him when Daisy thinks he has stolen from the kitchen. The reality, though is that Hoke cannot stand up to racism. He declines to attend a Martin Luther King event because it could damage his business. Steve Emily's performance is nuanced; both sides of Boolie are credible. Of all the Boolies I've seen, Emily's is the best; he seems to genuinely care for both his mother and for Hoke.
Levy has a talented cast, and he focuses those talents on telling a story about people, not politics. Never preachy, Levy keeps the focus on those caught up in social change. Levy's attention to detail is impressive; his three actors speak in authentic Southern accents and age gracefully as time passes from 1948 to 1973.
Set Designer Christopher Sheley has created a bi-level set with enough depth to distinguish the interior scenes from the exterior scenes. He brings Daisy's imaginary vehicle downstage, putting Hoke and Daisy on chairs to simulate the ride.
Holly Anne Rawls' lighting design is spot on (pun intended). She projects the colors of the sky on a large white scrim upstage to define the time of day, and she sprinkles stars across it at night. Rawls is particularly effective at lighting the ends of numerous scenes. The actors freeze in their last positions as Rawls slowly dims the stage. As the lights go down, the actors look like figures in an oil painting. As the lights continue to fade to black, they linger in a sepia tone, giving the actors the look of an old photo. I rarely use the word "brilliant" to describe lighting, for obvious reasons. For Driving Miss Daisy and Ms. Rawls, I'm making an exception.
February is Black History Month, and Driving Miss Daisy is a marvelous show to remind us that history is often messy. Uhry's script takes us back to a different time, when race relations were much more hostile and much less inclusive. One could say that we're better now, but the reality is somewhat more complicated. There are those who still deny that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War; the Confederate flag continues to symbolize rebellion for many. Tragic events such as those in Charleston last year remind us that there are those among us who are still fighting a war that nearly tore the nation apart more than 150 years ago.
Driving Miss Daisy won't resolve any of our conflicts around race, but it does remind us that all of us deserve to be treated with equal dignity. The standing ovation from the opening night audience at the Fine Arts Center is a clear signal that we have taken steps forward.