Driving Miss Daisy
Through Feb. 28 at Garden Theatre
160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
Familiarity breeds contempt, and few shows are as familiar as Driving Miss Daisy, Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize—winning 1987 Off-Broadway play that became the quadruple-Oscar-award—winning 1989 film. So we know where this is going from the opening offstage sound effects. Spry Semite Daisy Werthan, now in her 70s, has smashed up her Chrysler for the last time, so her dutiful adult son, Boolie, finds a nice, clean "Negro" named Hoke Colburn (they said stuff like that in post-World War II Atlanta) to act as her put-upon chauffeur. She spends the next quarter-century abusing and insulting him, until the emerging civil rights movement starts to seep through her thick skull and she eventually realizes that the stoic servant is her best and only friend.
You can read Daisy, as millions have, as an inspiring period piece about the power of friendship to bridge racial divides. Or, if you're a cynical SOB, you can see it as another well-intentioned example of the patronizing attitude that poisons black-Jewish relations even today. Either way, I didn't anticipate learning anything new from Daisy at Winter Garden's Garden Theatre.
But darn it if producer Beth Marshall and director Aradhana Tiwari didn't only open my eyes a little, but brought a tear to them, too. They don't do it through spectacle: Designer Hans Harrison's set is a bare stage with a few chairs, a blank cyclorama backdrop (lit by Amy Hadley) and a pair of benches that become the crucial Cadillacs courtesy of John Valines' sound design.
It's the excellent trio of actors they've cast that elevates this show above saccharine condescension. Elizabeth T. Murff is as sharp and sassy as you could want in the title role. Murff makes Daisy's arrogant insistence that she "isn't prejudiced" sound almost sincere; though far from elderly in actuality, she charts the character's physical decay convincingly (with a strong assist from Jennifer Bonner's costumes). Michael Lane can't carry off Boolie's ballooning personality, but he delivers his "You're a doodle, Mama" catchphrase with richly wry amusement and doesn't let cowardice corrupt his compassion.
Most intriguing is Michael Morman as Hoke; he commands attention from his first entrance. Initially I was uncertain about his singsong vocal patterns and darting eyes, deeming them stereotypical. But soon I understood how Morman was painting a painfully honest portrait of a man forced to adopt a mask of minstrelsy to hide his intelligence and dignity.
Morgan Freeman's iconic film portrayal of Hoke has been critiqued as exemplifying the "magical Negro" archetype: the impossibly patient African-American that absolves Caucasian sins. Morman's Hoke is less saintly, but somehow more solid and sympathetic. When he shares that elegiac slice of pumpkin pie with a weakened Daisy in the nursing home, the actors weren't the only ones with something stuck in their firstname.lastname@example.org