Between the world and the words of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, we find a play that gives us a chance to travel with two at first unlikely and even reluctant companions who allow us to participate in their slow, uneven and very real intimacy. The combination of the actual writing in the play and the amazing brilliance of all three performances in this current production lead me to wonder if those critics who found the play "slender" or slim might be afraid of experiencing the impact of a story that combines harsh social realities and real feelings.
Today we live in a culture where words are often a cover for feelings rather than a true description for them. And what's more, it is even harder to describe feelings when they take you by surprise and come upon you didn't know they were there. In this sense, Driving Miss Daisy is a play that can easily generate our prejudices by relegating it as a slender piece of nostalgia about racism that is harsh but not relevant. Conversely, I think it is too easy to minimize what might otherwise stir the discomfort of taking in the experience and letting it sit with us and inside us.
To take this play in slowly is to realize that the racial divide seems at first grotesque only because it is so obvious; it startles us and we can make it seem so very remote unless we look in the mirror of our times and see that while, on the surface, today's racism is less dangerous and violent, it is still a pervasive theme in these united and often divided states of America.
In the experience of Driving Miss Daisy, if we are uncomfortable about the emotions and conflicts and human beings knocking at our hearts, we can dismiss it as a play solely about racism -- something which seems a big mistake. This is not to say that the subject doesn't deserve its own attention, but rather that we are not relieved of our humanity by placing this play into any easy category. Rather, Driving Miss Daisy is a human story that transcends any time in history, love, loss, unease, hesitation, pride and shame. It reminds both the players and the audience that the human passion of connection can transcend most other facts of life most of the time.
It is the bunch of episodes that make this play full. The characters make their way into our hearts as they make their way into each other's. They have the dignity, both of them, to refuse to remain stereotypes, even though at times to narrow their power in that way might be tempting. And, I believe it is because it is a short play without grand operatic notes of persistent tragedy, that it more accurately reflects our own lives with the smallest moments made huge and hugely important.
To my mind, this production is not in any way a revival. For one, the play is twenty years old, not more. The way that notion might be fitting would be as a revival of our own capacities to let feelings and people into our hearts and minds, where they may well remain way after the play is over. As such it is a possible revival of our willingness to be surprised and less prone to hate or judge or diminish because of age or race or political viewpoint. The experience has more than this to recommend it but it would make a marvelous side effect.
During my telephone interview with the playwright Alfred Uhry, I found him to be happy, unabashedly happy. He told me he is enchanted by the alchemy of the actors in this version of a show that he feels fortunate to have written and come to see it have so much power for so many. The current cast stars James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave.
Of course, Uhry lived at least part of this play in his childhood with a grandmother who resembles Miss Daisy but alas was not as beautiful. Even in his interest in Atlanta Jewry, and how it was at the bottom of his identity totem pole, (he said there they were Southern first, then American, and Jewish last with that facet often considered an affliction), his heart seems to be with the characters and their relationships.
I had the opportunity to interview James Earl Jones, backstage before a recent performance. Without surprise, he cannot help but impress anyone present by how much he loves his character "Hoke." He loves him and respects him, for his honesty and innocence (I see plenty of mischief there as well), for his caution and his inability to abide by hypocrisy. Certainly Jones knows the racial issues contained in the play, as he knows his own from his real past, but still he is so loyal to the whole person of Hoke. He shared that he is enamored with how Hoke knew about Martin Luther King Jr. from television, and that Hoke watched television and as such was part of America.
Mr. Jones admitted that he is still considering certain parts of Hoke and that he is not sure he gets him completely. In particular he is considering still and trying to make his best sense out of certain moments of laughter in Mr. Uhry's script. He, Mr. Jones, is so aware of Hoke's own process, and he recognizes the humor. In my opinion, Mr. Jones is more on target with his portrayal than he may yet know. I have no doubt that Hoke will inform him of this any day now.
For me, the point worth sharing out of that exchange with Jones who is a grand presence and a great actor who gives a magnificent performance, is the mere fact that he is considering -- he is willing to consider. I see this willingness as a beautiful part of human potential that we witness all too rarely. In today's culture, we make up our minds too soon rather than letting issues sit with us, toss and turn a bit until they settle, and possibly change our minds.
Obviously seeing this production will not change you by force; it would be impossible and besides, it's out of character with the play's personality or its intention. However, the possibilities of being moved to thought and feeling, and to considering are definitely available. And that's a drive we should all take.
By the way, "Driving Miss Daisy" is a limited engagement at the Golden Theatre, scheduled to end January 29, 2011. I have reason to believe we can help them extend it, since this marvelous cast is happy in their roles and in their remarkable ensemble connections. They give us openings in our hearts and minds, and there is nothing slender about that, to be sure.
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