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Driving Miss Daisy

The Arena Players produce an idiosyncratic, winning version of a modern classic

Photo: William Walker, License: N/A

William Walker

Hoke Coleburn (Randolph Smith) takes Miss Daisy (Joan Corcoran) for a spin.

Driving Miss Daisy

By Alfred Uhry

At Arena Players through Oct. 30.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8 P.M., Sundays at 4 P.M. For more information, call 410-728-6500.

Driving Miss Daisy is a play that’s guilty of schmaltz and a dose of naivete. But it’s hard not to find it endearing, especially as produced by the Arena Players. It’s a modest, sweet production, with three excellent performances and some idiosyncrasies that manage to both confuse and delight. It’s a good night out, in other words, at the oldest continuously running African-American theater in the country.

With a cast of just three, the play gets its snap from the back-and-forth dynamic between the crabby Jewish widow Daisy Werthan (Joan Corcoran) and her affable African-American chauffeur Hoke Coleburn (Randolph Smith), with Miss Daisy’s middle-aged son Boolie (played to the height of Southern gentility by Richard Peck) as their sighing, head-shaking intermediary. The story, set in Atlanta, is told in a series of vignettes that follow the characters through a quarter-century of social transformation in the Deep South.

After the 72-year-old Miss Daisy wrecks her new car backing into a neighbor’s garage, Boolie decides that his mother needs a driver whether she wants one or not (she emphatically does not). He hires Hoke, who’s not inclined to take “no” for an answer, even from a woman for whom “no” is a way of life. Hoke is as determined to help Miss Daisy as she is to help herself, and there is just enough friction between them to generate some light along with all that heat. By the end of the play, they’ve reached a place that’s distinctly different from where they started so many years before; finally, the car is in drive instead of reverse. But first come a few dozen bumps in the road.

If the play’s race-based ironies are less immediately funny than they once were, it’s because modern-day audiences will find it both more and less difficult to recognize how odd this couple is: more, because we’re further removed from the society being explored on stage, and less, because the Reluctant Interracial Partnership has been a comedic trope for so long. Boolie’s frustration in dealing with his bullheaded mother, though, is as relatable as ever. Racial bigotry will continue to fade, one hopes; the stubborn independence of the elderly will always be with us.

Corcoran, who is a gem, brings a little front-porch grit—a little Baltimore—to her Miss Daisy that’s missing from Jessica Tandy’s patrician flower of the film version. But Miss Daisy is rarely despicable, even when she suspects Hoke of stealing a 33-cent can of salmon from her pantry. She’s hardly spoken the first knowing utterances about black people when Hoke appears, apologizes for his snack, and furnishes a replacement can—before Miss Daisy can have the satisfaction of accusing him. As her latent racial anxieties come to the fore in this scene, the subsequent embarrassment she feels adds to the sense that she’s more paranoid than prejudiced, content to hide in her insecurities until Hoke, often without meaning to, makes them visible. In a deceptively difficult role, Arena Players mainstay Smith not only delivers Hoke’s zingers with great timing, he communicates Hoke’s dignity, and the demand for it to be recognized, with a gentle hand.

The original dance sequences that punctuate certain scenes, performed by a straight-faced, agile teenage ensemble from Arena Players’ Youth Theater, are at times a little bizarre. Contemporary Christian music doesn’t lend itself well to dance. But at least two of the routines—particularly the piece that follows Hoke’s reminiscence of a lynching—are captivating and poignant.

It may seem odd that this sentimental little comedy won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988. Recall, though, that in the late ‘80s African-American/Jewish relations were at a low point. Leaders like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson spoke in inflammatory terms about “hymies” and the Holocaust, and the Crown Heights riots—three days of violence that swept Brooklyn after a black child was killed by the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi—were just around the corner. The political temperature was right for a play that affirmed a bond between African-Americans and Jews, even if writer Alfred Uhry’s treatment of the “shared experience” motif is limited. When Hoke relays the news to Miss Daisy that her synagogue has been bombed by white supremacists, we know, instinctively, that Hoke is going to say, “I know jes’ how you feel, Miss Daisy” before he says it—and yet, the scene reminds us that the differences between them are more a matter of perspective than either of them know.

“How do you know what I see ‘less you lookin’ outta my eyes?” Hoke says to Miss Daisy at one point. She’s only pestering him about his shortsightedness, but this is the question of the play: How can we hope to understand each other—how can we communicate—when it’s impossible to really experience the world through the eyes of another person? With a small cast, a small set, and big talent, the Arena Players offer us an unencumbered vision of mutual understanding that proves theater works best when the spirit of the play and the spirit of the players coincide.

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