Racial healing and harmony at center of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ at Bristol Riverside
By Michael Elkin
Alfred Uhry’s softly theatrical albeit powerful road map of the human heart, “Driving Miss Daisy,” mirrors a microcosmic reflection on race relations as filtered through the feisty, if unlikely, friendship of a wealthy Southern Jewish dowager and her African-American chauffeur.
Set over a 25-year span beginning in 1948, and first staged off-Broadway in 1987, this Pulitzer Prize-winning period piece nevertheless fits today’s racially-tinged times to a Model T.
Make that a Packard. Because it is that classic car that leads to a crash course in race relations for Miss Daisy. When this anything but genteel grand dame of Atlanta proves hell on wheels, an accident waiting to happen — and it does — her son, Boolie, forces her hand — away from the steering wheel, hiring Hoke, a chauffeur, to shuttle his 72-year-old, running-at-the-mouth mother around town.
This tender theatrical tapestry — interwoven strands of sentiment and senseless acts of history that has won hearts and awards (as well as Oscars for the 1989 movie version) — has pulled into the Bristol Riverside Theatre, where it’s stationed through Feb. 12, timed to a heart-filled holiday which appropriately merits this valentine served up to the frailty of human understanding and interconnection.
This insightful look into society’s rear mirror reflects the uncivil and southern discomfort for blacks, as well as paying heed to the bias and searing prejudice targeting Jews, no matter their station in life. “Driving Miss Daisy” bears witness to a poxed portrait of America the Beautiful besmirched by the very visible and frightening frissons of racism and hatred that detract from the overall picture.
Can’t we all get along? Initially, no, not Daisy and Hoke, whose frenemy relationship is fraught with fights and undercurrents of misunderstandings as they circle each other with the vehicle’s bumpers serving as buffers between the two.
But, ultimately, it is what they share — the vulnerability that comes from being strangers in their own strange land, the kinship of interdependence that obliterates the line between driver and passenger — that forces their differences to be overridden by a friendship/love linking the Jewish matriarch made to feel overpowered by advancing age and her driver forever forced to take a back seat in a white man’s world.
Uhry’s charming chamber piece — a tale based on his own grandmother and her driver — gets a grand interpretation at the BRT, with a cast that drives the messages home intelligently and with incredible depth. The relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke could seem hokum in other hands, but it is limned lovingly by Lucy Martin and Marvin Bell, high-octane talents totally immersed in their characters’ fragile and fading lives. Director Amy Kaissar obviously has her theatrical GPS perfectly attuned to the direction of the often unconventional paths the heart can chart for those seemingly lost in life.
As Boolie, the well-intentioned son who only wants the best for his mama — and a safe uneventful journey on her shopping adventures to the Piggly Wiggly — Michael Samuel Kaplan sparks empathy and admiration for a character not so much tied to his mother’s apron strings as slightly strangled by them. He plays “My Son the Put-Upon” splendidly.
Kudos, too, to Stivo Arnoczy, whose projection designs incorporating historical landmarks in African-American/Jewish relations, add to the big picture that this small ensemble drama projects beautifully.
Ultimately, “Driving Miss Daisy” pedals a need for racial healing and harmony in a way that offers hints of hope while understanding that the long and winding road to its destination remains an elusive one.