Stage Door Review

Driving Miss Daisy

Monday, October 17, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Alfred Uhry, directed by Marti Maraden

Drayton Entertainment, St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, St. Jacobs

October 7-22, 2022

Hoke: “I ain’ no dog and I ain’ no chile and I ain’ jes’ a back of the neck you look at 

Drayton Entertainment is currently present an absolutely flawless production of Driving Miss Daisy, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry. The casting is so perfect, the acting so nuanced, the direction so detailed you will ever see a better production. It’s a wonderful thing in the theatre when everything goes right and thats exactly what happens here.

Those unfamiliar with the play or the 1989 film based on it that won the Oscar for Best Picture should that plot is not the most important element of the story. The play is set in Atlanta, Georgia, and begins in 1948. The first sound we hear is of a car crashing. We discover that 72-year-old Daisy Werthan has just ruined her Packard. Her 40-year-old son Boolie, with much difficulty, convinces Daisy that she is now too old to drive and he insists that he hire a driver for her. Daisy and Boolie are Jewish but Boolie has earned Daisy’s everlasting displeasure by marrying a Christian.

Boolie, who has taken over the family business that his father had built up into a huge success, interviews several candidates for driver and settles on 60-year-old Hoke Coleburn, who has lots of experience driving and impresses Boolie with the fact that he was once the driver for a well-known local judge. Boolie, knowing how intractable his mother can be, makes sure that Hoke knows that he, Boolie, is employing him and only he can fire him no matter what Daisy may say or do. 

When we next see Hoke, he has been sitting around Daisy’s house for a week because she refuses to use him. Daisy claims that she doesn’t want people to think she is rich (though she is). Any time Hoke refers to her wealth, she reminds him that she grew up poor, long before her husband built up the company. Daisy insists to Boolie that she is not prejudiced since, after all, she has a coloured cook. What we and Boolie see is that a cook is fine because she stays inside the house. Daisy would have to be seen in public with a driver and that is her concern.

The entire focus of the play from this point on is the depiction of how the relationship between Daisy and Hoke evolves over the next 25 years. Daisy begins testy and constantly dissatisfied. Hoke has to keep reminding himself he is just doing a job. There seem to be four events that cause Daisy, in particular, to change her view of Hoke. The first is when she accuses Hoke of stealing “as they all do” only to be proved wrong and thus to feel humiliated in front of Boolie. The second is when Daisy discovers that Hoke can’t read. Daisy had been a schoolteacher and this admission brings out the passion she had for having a vocation. She offers to teach Hoke to read, the first kindness she ever shows him, and Hoke is genuinely grateful for this offer which makes him start to see past Daisy’s off-putting façade.

The third occurs when there is too much traffic for Hoke to take Daisy to temple. She is shocked when Hoke tells her that the temple has been bombed and that they have to turn back. This incident is a reference to Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple bombing in 1958. When Daisy asks who would do such a thing, Hoke answers that it is the same people who always do such things. (Uhry doesn’t mention it, but the temple rabbi Jacob Rothschild was a strong advocate for civil rights and integration, and the bombing was carried out by an affiliate group of the Ku Klux Klan.) Hoke speaks about seeing the results of a lynching when he was a boy, but Daisy doesn’t want to think of the two incidents as related even though they are.

The fourth event is much later when Daisy is in her 90s and is having an anxiety attack associated with dementia. It is Hoke who calms Daisy down and brings her back to herself. Boolie offers to come over but Daisy insists all fine because she is with Hoke.

Director Marti Maraden has a long history of directing insightful productions with an emphasis on drawing highly detailed performances from actors. Her production of The Merchant of Venice for Stratford in 1995 is still the best Merchant I have ever seen. More recently, her production of Twelve Angry Men for Drayton Entertainment in 2019 bested even the Roundabout Theatre production that visited Toronto in 2008.

In Driving Miss Daisy, where the entire interest of the play is the relationship among characters, Maraden is in her element and draws exquisite performances from Donna Belleville as Daisy, Cassel Miles as Hoke and Randy Hughson as Boolie. Belleville spent 19 seasons at the Shaw Festival and those who have missed seeing her there of late should rush to see her as Miss Daisy. This is a beautifully written role that covers a wide emotional arc, an arc in fact greater than she had been given in any of her roles at the Shaw.

What Belleville so excels at, a quality missed by far too many younger actors, is conveying more than one emotion at the same time. This ability is an absolute requirement of the role of Daisy and Belleville is simply thrilling in the role. In the middle of the play she shows us Daisy rebuking Hoke but at the same time she shows us Daisy silently rebuking herself for being so hard on someone she knows down deep is a good, trustworthy man.

Cassel Miles is a wonderful actor. I first saw him give an extraordinarily impressive performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the play The Meeting for Theatre Kingston in 2020. Here Miles’s role is completely different – not a national leader but simply a humble, honest man looking for a job. What makes this production so exciting is that Miles, like Belleville, also excels at conveying more than one emotion at the same time. At the beginning of the play he shows us Hoke silently chafing under Daisy’s imperious commands but saying nothing to contradict her.

What is so surprising about this production are the silences. Belleville and Miles are so expressive that even when Daisy and Hoke are silent we know exactly what they are thinking. In the middle of the play when Hoke feels he can speak more freely with Daisy and the two actually approach arguing, both Belleville and Miles communicate in their faces the immediate regret each has for upsetting the other. Belleville shows that Daisy is angry that she can’t control her temper while Hoke is aware how Daisy is actually changing and that he should not concern himself about an isolated flare-up.

The developing chemistry between Belleville and Miles is beautiful thing to watch. After only 90 minutes we do feel as if we’ve known the two their whole lives.

Boolie’s main function in the play is to act as the liaison between Daisy and Hoke. He knows his mother’s crotchets and he knows how solid and tolerant a man Hoke is. Randy Hughson is expert at the comedic side of this role, especially in trying to repress his near-constant exasperation with his mother. But Uhry gives Boolie a scene that shows us a more complicated side of the character. When Boolie tries to explain to Daisy why he can’t be seen to accompany her to Atlanta’s dinner honouring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for winning the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, he ties himself into knots. We have seen that he shows no prejudice towards African-Americans, but it is extremely disappointing to find that Boolie fears how the other businessmen in Atlanta will treat him if he is seen at the dinner. He is afraid he will lose business, contacts and the chance to build up the company further. Hughson shows us how agonizing it is for Boolie to admit this, how grating it is to put business before his private beliefs, how humiliating it is to Boolie to admit his own cowardice.

The St. Jacobs Country Playhouse with only 400 seats is ideal for this kind of play where minutes changes of expression or tone of voice are so important in creating the complexing of the characters and their relationships. Allan Wilbee’s cleverly designed set, subtly lit by Keven Fraser, illustrates the difference between Daisy and her son well. While the accoutrements of Boolie’s office change regularly with the passage of time from 1948 to 1973, Daisy’s sitting room remains exactly the same.

Driving Miss Daisy is a play about overcoming prejudice and about the possibility of a rift between people healing. It is funny but also makes a serious point without melodrama. Under Maraden’s direction it becomes a showcase for tremendous performances from all three cast members. It is too bad the run is so short because this production deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Donna Belleville as Daisy and Cassel Miles as Hoke; Randy Hughson as Boolie and Cassel Miles as Hoke; Cassel Miles as Hoke and Donna Belleville as Daisy. © Hilary Gault.

For tickets visit www.draytonentertainment.com.