Theatre New Brunswick
Driving Miss Daisy, the production Walter Learning has chosen to open Theater New Brunswick's 31st season, is a smoothly professional telling of a story that affected many members of the small opening night audience profoundly, and others rather less so.
In part its effectiveness has to do with its theme. As most people know, the story is about Miss Daisy, an aging Atlanta matron, whose son hires her a chauffeur (over her articulate and amusing protests), and how the black chauffeur and the Jewish matron, over a couple of decades, come to be each others' best friends. Even those who think this sort of thing should have warning labels -- "BEWARE: HEARTWARMING STORY AHEAD" -- can enjoy the author's unsentimental view of the social context of Atlanta in the middle and late 20th century, and of the prickly relationship between the two social groups most widely discriminated against in our society. But this didn't work for everyone.
One of the problems theater companies have when they choose a play that's also known as a successful movie, hoping to capitalize on its name recognition, is that many successful movies don't adapt well to the stage. I had expected that this would not happen with Driving Miss Daisy, because, in fact, it was a play first -- indeed, a Pulitzer Prize winning one. So it was surprising, on Friday night, to see that the script seemed to pose just the kinds of challenges for the company we'd expect from an adaptation of a movie.
Some of these challenges TNB faced and solved with the professionalism we've come to expect. One of them is that a script composed of dozens of short, separate scenes -- none, I think, longer than a few minutes -- can easily seem either laborious or jerky and artificial on stage, where we can't use the cinematic jump cut or the fade.
This was solved in part by Sheila Toye's set, which is elegant, simple, workable and imaginative (if somewhat unlovely). I especially liked the idea of having Miss Daisy's house permanently at one side of the stage, the "car" (really a couple of upholstered seats) toward the right, and reserving the far right for all the elements that needed to be changed -- a desk, a meeting hall, a graveside, a phone booth. And the way the "car" changed into a couch and bookshelf in one quick motion was an object lesson in elegant stage design.
Because of this flexibility, the actors were able to draw our eyes to the other side of the stage while the set was changed unobtrusively, and when they needed a tombstone (for instance), the lights came up and presto! there it was. Director Patricia Vanstone could make the timing between the scenes exactly appropriate: we never waited an instant too long for the next one to start. With the assistance of Chris Saad's sensitive lighting and a musical background that was generally elegant, effective and unobtrusive (though I'm still doubtful about "Santa Baby" during the Christmas scene), TNB turned what might have seemed a collection of random vignettes into a coherent, smoothly engineered whole.
But the script of Driving Miss Daisy presents some other challenges -- especially to actors. The short scenes don't give an actor time to build much. To become deeply engaged with a character, we usually need to see her dealing with a problem over time, relating to someone else in a growing and intense way, changing before our eyes. None of this happens in Driving Miss Daisy. Changes occur offstage, between scenes.
The arc of the developing relationship between Hoke and Miss Daisy is marked by a few points along it, but often the script seems to require us, in order to feel and understand what's in front of us, already to have felt something which, in fact, wasn't there. For instance, when Hoke announces that he's actually managed, in only six days ("Same time it took the Lord to make the world!" he crows), to get Miss Daisy into the car and drive her to the market, we haven't seen enough of her resistance to help us share his triumph.
Another challenge for the actors is that the issues and the characters of this play are small and intimate, their relationships subtle and understated -- and yet the actors have to be heard, and seen, in the far back rows of the Playhouse balcony. Thus all three actors leaned toward the broad and loud. This is better than the opposite error, which would have been to play it as though it were a movie or television, but it still poses difficulties. Ardon Bess' wonderfully mobile and expressive face, for instance, was often called on to hold expressions just a bit too long, or exaggerate them for effect.
It is a difficult challenge for a black actor to play a character so close to a clich‚. Hoke isn't an Uncle Tom, but author Alfred Uhry gives him most of the characteristic mannerisms, and Bess chose generally to play them larger than life. The ghost of Stepin Fetchit made it difficult to take him as seriously as we need to in order for him to be really funny, and really sympathetic.
Araby Lockhart doesn't have that challenge: Uhry hasn't made Miss Daisy into a stage Jew. But in some ways he has created a stage "old lady," and it was difficult for Lockhart to gain our sympathy in a deeper way than we would offer it to a cartoon. She was at her best, I thought, when Miss Daisy has what seems a mini-stroke, and becomes delusional, and when, with her walker in a rest home, she becomes an entirely convincing 90 year old. I liked the byplay among the three characters as she sits, apparently oblivious of the presence of her visitors, and her son Boolie -- played effectively and broadly by John Dartt -- chatters on to Hoke to fill the silence. Out of the side of her mouth, suddenly, Miss Daisy snarls, "Hoke came to see me, not you." And Hoke responds, in delighted triumph, "This is one of her good days!"
Finally, though, in the midst of the laughter and the occasional tear, the production seemed not quite to convince us of the world these people lived in. Perhaps an indication of this can be seen in the way the mime around the automobile worked. Since it is really just two upholstered benches, the car -- doors opening and closing, steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals -- all have to be created with the actors' bodies. I wasn't always convinced that this had been well thought through. I knew, for instance, that Hoke was closing the trunk of the car, or opening the door, but exactly where the trunk lid or door handle were wasn't clear at all. Does this matter? I think it does: I think for both us and the actors to believe in these people we need a complete commitment to the creation of their world.
I was very disappointed -- though probably not as much as the TNB company -- at the small opening night house. The fact that Driving Miss Daisy was an Oscar winning movie apparently didn't fill those seats. Perhaps the people who don't usually come to theater aren't lured by the chance to see it again, thinking that they've "already seen it." And the people who love theater, who'll come to see it because they know no two productions are ever the same, will come anyway, and will come away having enjoyed even this uneven production.