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Driving Miss Daisy

Alfred Uhry
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal
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Driving Miss Daisy is most famous in its Oscar-winning 1989 film incarnation, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, but it began life as a play and has been frequently revived ever since its première. Part of its appeal is as a star vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) for the lead actors; recent productions have featured the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

Never having seen the film, I found the play itself surprisingly slight. More a series of brief vignettes than a solid narrative, it ushers us through fragments of history in the American Deep South between 1948 and 1973.

It opens with the eponymous Miss Daisy (Paula Wilcox), an imperious septuagenarian widow, in fine health but getting to an age where she has to face the prospect of relinquishing control of some aspects of her life. She has recently crashed her much-loved car, but is keen to get back behind the wheel of the shiny replacement furnished by the insurance company. Much against her will, her son Boolie (Cory English) instead arranges to employ a driver for her.

Boolie is an up-and-coming forty-year-old businessman, and he quickly hits upon Hoke Coleburn (Maurey Richards) as the right man for the job. Despite a week’s worth of resistance from Daisy, who insists on taking the trolley-car to the shops rather than letting Hoke drive her, she relents—this all précised in a brief single scene. And so it goes. Problem is presented immediately before rather easy solution, and overall I found the storytelling somewhat rushed and insubstantial.

Clearly director Suzann McLean has been drawn to the play not so much for its redemption story of two people finding friendship despite the sizzling tensions of the American South in the mid-twentieth century, but for its resonances today and the dangerous signs that such harmony is currently being unpicked by contemporary political rhetoric (not only in the States).

It seems to me a shame, then, that such vital points are tucked away in the projected headlines and newsreel footage—still shocking and almost unbelievable—of Ku Klux Klan members openly parading through the streets. McLean’s framing of this as a “memory play”, while not without precedent, also didn’t quite cohere for me. Unlike, say, in Tennessee Williams, this central character is powerlessly involved in—rather than the narrator of—events. No tricks in Miss Daisy’s pocket. And it’s so much more of an ensemble piece, the three characters each having their own arcs and pathways alongside the historic story of the civil rights movement and amongst the social and political changes occurring around them.

Emma Wee’s design, too, sits uneasily between realism and dream. The large stage space, enclosed by flats, places us firmly in Daisy’s house for the most part, but the ever-present car sits in plain sight throughout the evening. It’s a beautifully realised piece of stage furniture, and when in use it works well. But it’s a distraction at other times, and I couldn’t help feeling a sprightlier, less literal and cumbersome design would have given more of both “memory” and “play”.

The other thing this play does though is show us a family ageing together, the sad decay of memory and the melancholic reversals of caring relationships, as a parent, or an old friend, becomes more and more dependent. Wilcox plays this ageing well, the subtlety and clarity of her physical changes impressive. Richards and English, too, become slower, sadder—but not downbeat—as the story progresses. The final scene cannot help but be moving; a shame that the production around these fine actors just can’t quite match the performances.

Mark Smith