3/1/2019 DRIVING MISS DAISY Georgia Ensemble Theatre
****½ ( A )
In 2009, Theatrical Outfit produced a revival of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy that worked on every level for me. In 2014 most of that cast was tapped to drive it again in Aurora's black box space. And now, they're back again, this time to celebrate the anniversary of the first Atlanta production at Roswell's Georgia Ensemble Theatre. Because this is an oft-seen chestnut that still works, still moves, forgive me for me reviving (and editing) my comments on the 2009 and 2014 productions:
She's back! Almost thirty-five years after first being driven onto Atlanta's stages, Miss Daisy Werthan is once again coming for a visit. And, for my tastes, it's a welcome, even appropriate return. After all, the main theme of the play is how the passage of time affects ourselves, our relationships, our homes and families. We see these characters change over the course of twenty-five years. Now we get a chance to see if our reactions to this play have grown or changed over a similar period.
My own exposure to the play was no doubt more limited than most. I was living in Harrisburg PA when it first saw life, and read the script long before seeing it on stage. I designed lights for a production before leaving Pennsylvania, and that's about it until 2009 (the nice 1989 movie excepted). I've always found it a pleasant piece, notable more for its characters and acting opportunities than for its rather rose-tinted politics and story. In the right hands it can be moving, even inspiring, and, truth to tell, I've never seen it badly done.
And that's the case here. Three of the best actors in Atlanta (Jill Jane Clements, Rob Cleveland, and William S. Murphey) breathe life into these characters, making me remember why I first found them so appealing. Director Laurel Crowe has made the cavernous G.E.T. space seem downright intimate. Everybody on the Acting and Designing teams have made simple and effective choices, and the whole story comes with a compelling sense of honesty. (Kudos to Lighting Designer Connor McVey for showing there is still someone who remembers the ancient skill of "Lighting a Cyc.")
Just to remind the younger of you out there, the play is about a genteel Atlanta matron whose son compels her to hire an African-American chauffeur after a senior-citizen moment behind the wheel. We see the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke grow through the scenes and years until they truly become the best of friends. We hear talk of the social upheavals that made Atlanta so interesting between 1948 and 1973, but it's really background noise to the real upheavals -- the changes that time and proximity bring to two strikingly similar, realistically disparate characters. If the politics and disarray of the times are given a rosy veneer, the harsh realities of time and aging are not.
As with earlier productions, I was impressed by how quiet this play is, by how it lets us find the story, the threads of life without pounding us over the head with clever theatrics. It's a stark reminder that the best theatrics are those that occur between characters, within the flow of story, and not the ones that come out of clever technological wizardry.
The main thing that has changed for me over the years is that, being a resident of Atlanta now, I recognize the place names and can smile with almost-hometown familiarity at them. It doesn't hurt that the Temple Bombing referred to in the play received a full Alliance Theatre docu-play treatment a couple years ago.
I'm also now in the warm embrace of my golden years, rather than daily living the disappointments of middle age. so I have more patience for stories that are more about relationships than about political soap-boxing. I freely admit that I used to have a problem with the play's naive portrait of Southern race relations, and, if I had been writing reviews when I first read the play, I would have taken it to task. But, today, I can appreciate the constancy of this piece, the care it takes in creating its characters, the timelessness of its approach (nothing here feels "dated" or less-than-evocative of the years in which it is set). And I can definitely appreciate the skill with which these actors, this director bring to this production.
So, this is definitely a production to see and relish. It's a wonderful opportunity for a revisit if you've seen it before, or, if you haven't, it's a wonderful opportunity to get acquainted. And, it is quiet and gentle enough that you leave the theater chuckling over the soft ironies of a play about Time's Arrow coming across as so, well, as so timeless.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #GETDrivingMissDaisy #NotADoodle)
Postscript: In 2009, I was (perhaps correctly) taken to task for my casual brush-off of the politics of this piece. There are admittedly ugly moments of casual racism and anti-Semitism. My point is that the structure of the play -- short visits to various years along a long spectrum -- requires these issues to be resolved quickly and (perhaps too) easily. I did notice this time that most of the comments and attitudes change over time, a subtle "grace note" that obviously escaped my notice in 2009, but not 2014. This is obviously a play that improves with time. And, my final comment from 2014 seems strangely prescient: Driving Miss Daisy is well worth a revisit every five years or so.