Driving Miss Daisy: A Gentle Story & Social Commentary

Wednesday 12th June 2019 at York Theatre Royal.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy isn’t a stage staple these days but there’s a lot of merit to this play which was captured on film in 1989 and received success to the tune of Oscars and Golden Globes. The play looks at personal and political history, following the fiercely independent Daisy Werthan (Paula Wilcox), her well-meaning son Boolie (Cory English) and the chauffeur hired to ferry Daisy around somewhat against her will, Hoke Coleburn (Maurey Richards). 

Wilcox and Richards carry the show of course with English jovially providing all the external influences needed to complicate or clarify the blossoming platonic relationship between Hoke and Miss Daisy. Wilcox’s take on Miss Daisy is a welcome departure from Jessica Tandy’s skilfully thorough cantankerous screen depiction. Miss Daisy is more likeable and more malleable here – her tempers are more irks than rage and there’s a compelling plea to understand the ageing character’s feelings of losing privacy and independence.

Wilcox is also a great Miss Daisy thanks to the twinkle in her eye and a quickness of step in the early scenes – she’s almost playful when her paranoia is outed and her humorously exasperated son (played with an identical twinkle in the eye by English) has to come to rescue her from pseudo calamity. In this production, our protagonist feels more human and sensitive, even with the scowling exterior and the graveyard scene is a highlight for both Wilcox and Richards, bringing comedy and sensitivity together beautifully.

Hoke is a hugely likeable character and Richards makes sure that of everyone on stage, he has our absolute support throughout. What Richards does best is show what an infinitely patient and compassionate man Hoke is; Miss Daisy’s attitude towards him would break many a gritted teeth smile but Hoke simply takes it in his stride and gently charms his way to better terms. That doesn’t make watching Miss Daisy be so darn dismissive and rude any easier to watch though, particularly when we can see darker forms of such attitudes playing out in displayed news clippings.

Set in the 50s in Georgia, Atlanta, the story plays out against a backdrop (literally, thanks to projections across a wide cyclorama) of disturbing news features centring on fractious race relations within a mixed Southern community. The context doesn’t really significantly intrude into the lives of our characters except for a few key moments and this displaying of brutal sociopolitical history while holding it at arm’s length feels tepid at times. The central story neglects bigger issues alluded to in favour of the personal foreground, but there’s a distinct impression that engaging more with life outside Miss Daisy’s car door might have given the story a a broader view of the troubling time it mildly depicts. 

What Driving Miss Daisy does delve into is equally valuable though and Suzann McLean’s direction feels as aptly gentle and discerning as Hoke himself. The story explores the connections between minorities which those like Miss Daisy do not readily discern for themselves. Both Hake and Miss Daisy face incidents of prejudice, she as a Jew, he an an African American. Chip away at the facade of the polite driver trying to convince his hostile passenger to get on board with the programme and you’ll see a gradual pattern of thinly veiled prejudice loosening its grip – the woman born in the 1870s sees more of the man than the politics which have clearly silently influenced her and her various micro-aggressions or flippant comments. 

Set and costume design (Emma Wee) are great and problematic. Costumes evoke the era well and Miss Daisy’s wardrobe is particularly effective while set is well conceived but ultimately problematic. It commendably opts for a car beyond chairs on a platform, using a revolve to set the vehicle in motion. Yet the car is disappointing in its combination of realism and tokenism which decidedly pulls the production down on the aesthetic front. The use of the torn wall design of the cyclorama to project key images of news reports (AV Designer Ed Sunman) does however nicely replenish some of the stylistic sophistication sacrificed by the car design.

Driving Miss Daisy tells a gentle tale of two people learning to get along despite one of the two having significant character flaws to overcome. It touches on grittier subjects and messages but keeps the sweet story foregrounded and the  troubling political backdrop at a mild distance. The play offers likeable characters delivering timeless and vital messages: tolerance and kindness are key, love conquers hate and taking the time to speak to someone different to yourself can be invaluable, life-affirming and very enriching if you just give the process a chance.

Driving Miss Daisy is produced by York Theatre Royal and plays until June 29th 2019. You can find tickets here.

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