A gentle journey through time

The odd couple: Hoke, played by the splendid Don Warrington, and tries to make a point to Daisy, played by Gwen Taylor. Pictures: Nicholas Dawkes

Driving Miss Daisy

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

****

I MISSED seeing Wendy Hiller as Daisy Werthan in the UK launch of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy at London's Apollo Theatre. That was in 1988, a year after its off-Broadway premiere starring Morgan Freeman as the black African-American chauffeur (Freeman later also starred in the film, with Jessica Tandy). 

Two years ago, this entertaining, undoubtedly heart-warming play (‘Play with a big heart', yelled the billboards) was revived on Broadway, with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, and ran briefly at London's Wyndham's Theatre. 

The present, fairly stayed staging, an offshoot of the Redgrave production in conjunction with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, is by American David Esbjornson, veteran stager of Arthur Miller (directing Patrick Stewart), Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several recent new plays; also the brains behind an authoritative West End production of Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men (starring Hollywood heartthrob Rob Lowe); and associate director Jon Emmanuel. 

This Miss Daisy, though not unflawed and just a fraction tired, charms, delights, mesmerises, captivates and enchants its audience. It flaunts emotion but does not milk it.  

Which means the cast, as well as the staging, must be good. Driving Miss Daisy is about an elderly white Southern Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan (initially aged 72; she expires in her latter 90s, so Uhry's scenario leads us by the hand from 1948 to 1973), who is saddled with a new black driver by her businessman son.  

Mrs. Werthan (Gwen Taylor, as effective at portraying angry old age as, say, Beryl Reid) is making more than one transition. Born in quite humble circumstances, she has come into wealth the way families of self-made men do, both before and after the Depression. She has a little of the arrogance of privilege, but it is wafer thin; moody and prickly at first, she is changeable; but her humanity runs deeper.

Ian Porter as Boolie, Daisy's son and Hoke's boss

Having grown up in the almost instinctively prejudicial environment of the American South, she witnesses segregation and the growth of the Ku-Klux clan, and that, the impact of Martin Luther King, the underlying decency of her roots (though what are they?) and above all, the enriching relationship that evolves with Coleburn (the wonderfully inflected Don Warrington), render her a woman not of the early, but of the late, 20th century (as she is indeed by the end). Her prejudice, if there was a residue of it, dissolves in a puff. 

The play, with intermittent, sometimes insistent and (up to a point) dramatically useful interruptions, telephonic or otherwise, by her son (Ian Porter, a good foil. Porter understudied the role on Broadway; has played All My Sons at the Bristol Old Vic, The Glass Menagerie at Derby Playhouse; and one can imagine both playwrights' idioms suiting him well). This not-quite-grown-up lad is called Boolie Werthan (curious: my dictionary gives ‘Boolie' as a) a nickname for Julie; b) slang for a Black American; c) the hindquarters of a small dog. It is in fact, though unexplained, a Southern boys' ‘pet' name.) 

There are many scenes involving all three actors, and dialogues between all. Not, perhaps, enough soliloquy, which might have helped explore character more intently. Everything being interaction, the material is limited, at least early on (which drags somewhat) by the articulacy or otherwise of the threesome, the paucity of each character's imagination. In a way that's the point; in a way it hinders. 

The cast's entrances, visually at least, are uninteresting, partly due to any salient design features in John Lee Beatty's plain set, but also to some lack of directorial flair. A single wide stairway, rear stage right, adds nothing By the end, the characters have aged a quarter of a century; their movement alters accordingly (Miss Daisy's rather well). But they are still plodding around much as they did at the outset. If the designer intended us to imagine the mansion's scale and dimensions, he was right: that's what we have to do.

The action hots up at Hoke's job interview with the son, and for two reasons. The first is the delightful way with which they (inevitably, the son being Jewish liberal minded) discover affinities (Hoke has driven for a judge, a friend of their family; but more importantly, he is a man who knows his mind, and proudly says so, earning respect), and thus after some awkwardness rapidly ‘click': did Werthan's parents' household have black ex-slave retainers?  

A further reason is that Werthan (a not uncommon Jewish business name: there is still a conglomeration in Tennessee, for instance) is forearmed, having always assumed that for economic reasons he will hire a black driver. (Hoke's salary, or weekly wages, rockets as the play progresses: $20 in 1948; $75 after he successfully haggles, in one of the play's most entertaining, quickfire exchanges, ten years later.)   

It is the maybe-maybe not, will they/won't they, the gradual freeing up of the relationship with Miss Daisy, that creates the entertainment, and the charm, of the play. Not the drama. Because we know that she will, in fact, succumb, there is a dimension missing form this play as surely as it can be lacking, or subordinated, in costume drama. There is no Miller element, no deep-seated tension that reveal the unexpected. No undercurrents to illustrate back up or challenge the bagel society. It is this delightful inevitability, the fruition of their relationship that woos and wins audiences. For me, it is a disaster and a disappointment. 

But let us not cavil. So beautifully honed is Warrington's performance (before closure, he was seen in the Birmingham Rep's The Merchant of Venice), his subtle changes of mood, the hunched stance yet staunchly upright, shoulders-back walk, the inflection of his voice with its high pitch, interrogative lilt (all, a friend advised me, characteristic of the Southern black: the obligatory marks of deference) that he engages us at every turn.  

Yet perhaps not at the outset. Esbjornson has Hoke deliver his first responses facing upstage; it would have been so easy to switch it – Hoke's chair and Werthan's desk - the other way round. Before you get used to his gentle drawl, it's tricky to catch every word. Yet this initial problem mostly wafts away; Warrington's Hoke still swallows his words occasionally; but he creates too congenial a character, too honourable and honest and forthright, for us not to hang on his every sentence. 

Don Warrington's Hoke had a social as well as physical journey to travel

What renders the set, or rather the setting, so atmospheric is the rear-projection (designed originally for New York by Wendall K. Harrington, whose work includes John Adams' Nixon in China, the opera premiere of A View from the Bridge and work with The Who, Simon and Garfunkel and Talking Heads), the first and arguably most arresting of which depicts the massive frontage of the Werthan Factory, a post-Victorian façade that suggests smoky Salford or dismal Dundee, or more likely, drear Detroit. This superimposes its own grandeur, but also its own tension, on the play's unfolding. A cyclorama brought vividly to life, they are one of the best aspects (one might say the best) of this production. 

Later in Harrington's impactful scenic backdrops we will see Corinthian columned churches and meeting halls, the hilariously names Piggly-Wiggly superstore (the first of Miss Daisy's, at first reluctant, sorties with Hoke); and at a key moment, one of the last speeches of Martin Luther King. This kind of animated cyclorama – surreal in its way, but never fazing an audience - works wonders here: a play very much dependent on context (over 25 years) is located in real time. 

Gwen Taylor's Daisy Werthan is a picture of a character. Still strong and determined, in the swingaround of generations, not to be overborne by her son (‘Quit talking so ugly to your mother'; ‘I'm not prejudiced, can't you understand?'), she unhesitatingly – not entirely inaccurately - accuses Hoke of theft (‘a tin of salmon') before he turns the tables by producing a replica and explaining the cause of the disappearance. She moves well; by old age her legs are puffy (and surely padded out?), her gait arthritic. There is not enough discovery in her performance, which goes as far as the script but no further, to make it a great one; but it is a very good one, and she entertains hugely.              

The script seems variable, and at times slow: there are lines kept in that could easily be dispensed with – this is not Miller, who has the tautness of Greek tragedy; it lacks the impact of Williams; and it lacks, on the whole, the poetry of either. Yet other passages are really telling, as, for example, when Hoke explains, put on the spot, that he cannot read, or when he described, later, a racist lynching, or the potential for another even now.  

If the play does have force, it is that one senses a dual, or even triple, tragic undercurrent: that of black discrimination and oppression; the Jewish pogroms and diaspora that brought the Werthans' forebears to the States; and the economic disaster of the great Wall Street crash.  

None is explored, except perhaps the first, with any depth; even the McCarthy era passes unnoticed (did it affect East and West but not South?) It is impossible to expect a play spanning 25 years of history to treat it all – the Cold War, Alabama's Governor Wallace, the Kennedy killing; but by the time Daisy is 89 (January, 1965) it is not unreasonable to expect those integral to the play and its central characters to have been teased out with greater subtlety and insight. 

Ian Porter's Boolie character is mixed: unprepossessing, yet put upon (his mother bickers with him as an adult but treats him as a child; perhaps the way most mothers do). He brings good touches – some of his (onstage) phone calls are amusing, one with his Secretary, a Miss McLatchy, especially so.

We do not see the businessman, which one well-crafted short speech might have supplied (the interview with Hoke in his office is a different matter). Thus Boolie remains a cipher: part amiable, part brisk, part bumbling.  

An understanding and affection slowly grows between Daisy and Hoke

Yet when he tells Hoke at the end, when Miss Daisy, now in a home, is no longer there to drive, ‘Your check is going to keep coming,' the generosity and gratitude is typical of Boolie's nature. There is a definite, and welcome, element of noblesse oblige. It is the potential philanthropy of wealth, and the richness of bonding over time, that Porter captures particularly well. 

Still, it is Warrington who, with his glorious understatement and irony, holds the whole thing together, and lends the script its warmth and its wisdom. Even later in the play, as he disappears for a pee near the side of the road (‘Coloureds can't use the toilet at the State Oil company'), he is still a victim of a purportedly emancipated but miserably unequal regime.  

The ‘driving' scenes, on a makeshift bench or a hilariously circling floor device, are, true to the title, a delight. But when, almost an hour and a half into the play, Hoke sits next to Miss Daisy for the first time, and (you feel it coming) Daisy takes his hand - ‘Hoke, you're my best friend' - you feel the build-up has been long but slight. There has been no real growth to this moment; it sounds merely like a sigh of old age: soppy, sentimental, and despite audience oohs and ahhs, only mildly touching. 

But Daisy has spirit even now. ‘Hoke came to see me, not you,' she tells her loquacious son at the retirement home. Whatever its limitations, the second half of Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy in infinitely superior to the first.  

And these final scenes epitomise the pair's finest dramatic touch: the silences. It is the haltingness of conciliation, the slow plod of coming to terms, the tentativeness of embrace, that they intermittently capture so well. Gwen Taylor, it could be argued, has enough of the Wendy Hiller-Vanessa Redgrave ingredients to be on the way to a great performance. Warrington is already there. To 16-02-13

Roderic Dunnett 

Driving Miss Daisy is at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe 2-6 April and the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton 9-13 April.  http://www.daisyontour.co.uk/

And in the middle lane . . . .

****

ALTHOUGH this warm-hearted play is based during a period of major social change in America and at the height of the civil rights movement, it does not try to deliver any fundamental racial message to the audience.

Rather it shows the genuine mutual affection that develops between Miss Daisy Werthan, a wealthy Jewish widow living in Georgia, and the veteran black chauffeur her son appoints in 1948 because he fears his 72-year-old mother's driving is no longer up to scratch.

Gwen Taylor, herself a spritely 74-year-old whose acting career included a spell as Anne Foster in Coronation Street, is a delight as Daisy, perfectly reflecting her prickly reluctance to be replaced by anyone at the wheel of her own car.

So at first she gives a frosty reception to kindly Hoke Coleburn who, however, soon proves he is capable of coping with her moods which reach a crisis when she thinks, wrongly, that he has stolen a tin of salmon.

Don Warrington, who played Philip Smith in the TV hit Rising Damp, gives a quality performance in the role of Hoke. Never overawed by his difficult boss, he earns her respect to the extent that, in a touching scene late on, she pats him gently on the hand and admits "Your are my best friend". Their friendship lasted to her 90th year when she was wheelchair-bound in a home for the elderly.

Ian Porter also impresses as Daisy's businessman son whose decision to turn down an invitation to accompany Daisy to a Martin Luther King banquet because of the affect it might have on his company shows the undercurrent of racial concerns in the area. To 16-02-13

Paul Marston

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