Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy is the kind of play that rewards the careful observer. There are no grand monologues nor histrionics, and nobody raises a fist in anger or falls into a heartfelt embrace. Big moments develop on the face of someone looking into the distance, or in the slumping of a pair of shoulders. America may be lurching through momentous social change around Daisy Werthan (Kathleen Sitzer) and her driver, Hoke (J. Samuel Davis), but the personal changes between them are of a subtler, but still transformative, nature. The New Jewish Theatre's current production of Driving Miss Daisy is suitably quiet and remarkably warm under the direction of Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, as gentle in its progress as the passing of the seasons.
The play opens shortly after Daisy has totaled another car, and her son Boolie (Eric Dean White) has decided to hire a driver against Daisy's wishes. Sitzer fires off Daisy's one-liners and assaults on her son's perceived foolishness with admirable zest, all of which are deflected by White's small smile. Boolie seems to acquiesce to her wishes in this opening scene, tenderly kissing her and telling her "she's a doodle," but he still hires the driver. This dynamic between them plays out again and again, Daisy's fire slowly engulfed and smothered in Boolie's foamy kindness.
Daisy has an entirely different dynamic with Hoke. She's just as demanding and controlling, but all her words have less effect on Hoke. He's a talker and a deft negotiator, seemingly agreeing with her (what else can he do as a black man in 1940s Atlanta?) while still getting his way more often than not. Davis' portrayal is the keystone of the show; too much knuckling under and Hoke becomes an ugly caricature of the happy black servant, and Daisy likewise becomes another person oppressing him. In Davis' sure hands, Hoke (and the rest of the production) are never in danger. Hoke's motivations — to remain a productive member of society as he ages out of job options, to be needed by someone — are at the root of all those "yes ma'ams." It's that quality in Hoke that Daisy slowly recognizes over the course of the 25 years covered in the play. She warms to him, but in her own way, and not always at the pace one would hope.
Part of Daisy's problem is her sheer stubbornness when it comes to money. She grew up poor, and while she's now rich, thanks to her deceased husband, she refuses to acknowledge it or even think about the advantages it affords her. She also can't imagine why Hoke would openly admit wanting to be rich. The advantages are obvious, not least being that money provides some protection from the racism and the anti-Semitism that seems to be growing as time passes. As reform Jews who celebrate Christmas, the Werthans aren't really in the cross-hairs (although it should be noted Daisy isn't really on board with Boolie's gung-ho celebration of the season) — until, suddenly, they are.
Sitzer and Davis create the aftermath of a synagogue bombing with shocked pauses and wary glances away from each other. Daisy can't imagine who would do it, but Hoke knows. "It's always the same people, Miss Daisy," he says softly. The carnage reminds him of a horrible event from his youth, which he relives out loud as if he's compelled by the past. Sitzer and Davis play the scene quietly, all of their confusion and pain written in those pauses and their lack of eye contact.
That eye contact is eventually consummated, and it's as fulfilling as any show-stopping kiss. After a quarter of a century together and all the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement passing through the deep South, Hoke's "yes, ma'ams" are stilled by a piece of pie and a shared smile. Driving Miss Daisy is a necessary reminder that if we get out of each other's way and get to know one another, we really could all just get along.
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