Set in the southern United States in the period 1948 to 1973, Driving Miss Daisy was first performed thirty years ago. Since then it has garnered a Pulitzer Prize for writer Alfred Uhry, and the 1989 film version won four Oscars, including Best Picture. There is no denying its enduring popularity or, indeed, its relevance, for recent events in Charlottesville make it all too clear that the issues it touches on remain tragically unresolved. However, that ‘touches on’ is something of a problem, for Driving Miss Daisy is a comedy-drama that takes a lightweight and even sentimental approach to its themes of race, religion and social division, and there will be those who find it all too comfortable and complacent.
What rescues this play from being irredeemably cosy is the skill with which Uhry charts the development of an unlikely but ultimately deeply moving friendship between a retired teacher, Daisy Werthan, and her chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. She is wealthy, cantankerous and Jewish; he is poor, illiterate and black. Drawn with sharp wit and considerable depth, these are juicy roles that merit acting of the highest calibre. In this production Siân Phillips is a wonderfully grouchy Daisy, reluctant to accept that her driving days are over even though she has destroyed both her car and the garage it landed on. Highly opinionated and wholly unreasonable, in her emphatic manner we can see the schoolteacher she once was. As the long-suffering Hoke, Derek Griffiths is every bit her match. Hoke is unemployed and wearing hand-me-downs when we first meet him, but he knows his own worth. He is appointed Daisy’s chauffeur by her son, Boolie, a liberal-minded businessman determined to prevent his mother from wrecking any more cars. It takes Hoke six days to convince Daisy that he should drive her to the local market – ‘Same time it took the Lord to make the world.’ Daisy remains hostile, though her antipathy is less to do with racial prejudice than the fact that Hoke’s presence is a painful reminder of her increasing frailty. Their relationship has a watershed moment when she falsely accuses him of stealing a can of salmon. Faced with irrefutable evidence of his honesty, her attitude softens, though she remains prickly to the end.
In contrast, Hoke is a patient, kindly, and steadfastly good man, and it might be thought that this makes his the less interesting of the two central roles. But Griffiths skilfully brings out Hoke’s dignity in the face of past humiliation, and one of the play’s most moving episodes is his recollection of a lynching that he witnessed as a child. The first half of Driving Miss Daisy is certainly amusing, but rather lacking in punch. Thankfully, there is more grit in the second half. Hoke’s description of seeing the body hanging from a tree, covered in flies, is one moment when the play directly depicts the true horrors of its times. Another such moment occurs when the amiable Boolie backs out of taking his mother to a dinner in honour of Martin Luther King. He admires King, but many of his associates do not, and his business will suffer he becomes stigmatised as ‘Martin Luther Werthan’. Teddy Kempner is excellent as the well-intentioned Boolie, a man whose moral convictions are undermined by his lack of moral courage. So, at the last minute it is Hoke who is invited to take Daisy to the dinner, though he makes it clear that he is angry that this in an invitation that could have come much earlier.
In the final scene those political and social issues that have been in the background disappear altogether. What we now see is a touching portrait of the consolation of companionship in the face of extreme old age. Daisy has come to recognise that Hoke is her best friend, and he visits her in the care home where she is spending her last days. He too, has had to hang up his driving gloves, so he travels by taxi. This is a luxury he can afford, as Boolie is still paying his wages. ‘Highway robbery’, comments the still combative Daisy, as he helps her eat her Thanksgiving pie.
Driving Miss Daisy’s origins lie in a story from Alfred Uhry’s own family, and in style the play is anecdotal, episodic and, at times, a little clumsy in both structure and tone. Director Richard Beecham has skilfully smoothed over the cracks, and delivered a production that is both amusing and, at times, very moving. However, I feel more weight could have been given to the play’s few moments of real anger. Siân Phillips delivers a performance of star quality that exploits the defiant energy of her role to the full. She is feistiness personified. But it is Derek Griffiths’ performance as the noble, resilient Hoke that is truly outstanding. He is splendid. ★★★★☆ Mike Whitton at Bath Theatre Royal on 9th September 2017