On Stage: In the Rear View

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ at Ford’s, a play for a bygone era.

Nancy Robinette as Daisy and Craig Wallace in 'Driving Miss Daisy' at Ford's. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Nancy Robinette as Daisy and Craig Wallace in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ at Ford’s. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Driving Miss Daisy” has won a shelf full of trophies, including a Pulitzer Prize the year it opened off Broadway and then went on to win four Academy Awards, including best picture and best adapted screenplay. It is a charming, even sweet play that is now being staged at Ford’s Theatre. While it runs a comfortable, undemanding 80-minutes, it is unfortunately underwhelming.

The fault is in this dated play and not the production. Director Jennie L. Nelson has put together an exceptionally talented three-person cast led by the always delightful Nancy Robinette and the dignified Craig Wallace, two veteran Washington actors supported by a sensitive performance by Ron Heneghan. All three recreate the well-remembered roles portrayed by Jessica Tandy, who won the best actress Academy Award in the 1989 film version that also starred Morgan Freeman, who was in the original off-Broadway cast, and Dan Akroyd as the concerned son.

Robinette easily gets the best out of Alfred Uhry’s script as the embodiment of a cranky Jewish widow, Daisy Werthan, who angrily objects to her son Boolie Werthan (Heneghan) telling her she can no longer drive. At 72 years, she’s had a driving accident and as a result, he insists on hiring a chauffeur. He hires Hoke Coleburn (Wallace) a “colored” man (the setting is 1948 Georgia when “colored” was the more polite term in use). Hoke previously drove for a judge who has since died.

Daisy is a stubborn matron who wants nothing to do with Hoke and would sooner take a streetcar than be driven anywhere. She obviously cannot maintain that position. Eventually over the next 25 years she develops a relationship with the long-suffering, but proud Hoke. Time passes quickly, and at the end, Hoke visits Daisy, now 97 and living in a retirement home.

Together, the two have worked out a careful, but increasingly warmer relationship that touches on the edges of the turbulent 1960s, with the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in Atlanta. While all that is a revelatory experience for Daisy, especially when her synagogue is bombed, the overriding theme of “Driving Miss Daisy” is the personal relationship between two outsiders — a Jew and a black man.

Tony Cisek’s scenic design is minimal with small platforms and a cluster of furniture. When they are in the car, there are two comfortable bench seats, with Daisy in the back giving annoying direction on how Hoke should drive, at what speed, and how to get there.

“Driving Miss Daisy” is part of a trilogy of plays written by Uhry about his experience growing up Jewish in Georgia. And while he deserves the accolades that have come with his work, it lacks the uniqueness it had when it first opened 27 years ago. It still offers a warm, heart-filling theatrical experience, but it is theater “lite.”

Driving Miss Daisy” continues through Oct. 26, 2014 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets are $15-$62 and available at 202-347-4833 and online here.

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