Thursday 20 February 2014

Driving Miss Daisy motors along charmingly

Script recap :  It's 1948, Atlanta, Georgia. There's a new old odd couple in town. A Southern Jewish matron Daisy, 72, and Hoke, 60, her Negro car driver. Daisy's in denial. Son Boolie has hoist her driver's license after she backed her new Packard across the lane and wiped out her neighbour's 2-car garage. He unilaterally appoints Hoke as her driver. Nothing against "coloreds" she insists, it's all about loss of independence and personal agency. We watch snippets of the lives of Daisy and Hoke over 25 years. And witness their relationship evolve -- the crotchety she and the subservient he -- as they become a lot chummier than when they start out. The film version starred Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. It won best script adaptation and Best Picture at the 1990's Oscars, three years after the original off-Broadway stage show that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Fast forward. There has since been a curious 20-year-hiatus between the last stage performance of DMD and today. Hmnnn. Odd for such a gold medal launch both on stage and on the big screen in just a couple of years. But maybe no real mystery after all.

Why the gap ?  Critics whinge that Alfred Uhry's script is "lightweight", a "very slender work" that is "simplistic" and "romanticized". Probably that's in part because of the stereotypes of DMD's characters. In 1948 Daisy is an aging Jewish matron nearly 20 years ahead of Lyndon Johnson's civil rights laws. Hoke is an aging out-of-work Jim Crow Negro nearly 20 years ahead of Black Panther Huey Newton. Newton, recall, demanded that "black" replace the N-word, the n-word and even "colored".* And try as it might, the script presents viewers with caricatures instead of developed characters the way a Pinter or a Chekhov or a Munro would manage. 

Play & character snapshots :  DMD wanders merrily along as a series of stitched-together scenes that are clearly from Ozzie-&-Harriet's America. It's lite and lively and glad for the most part, occasionally a bit of sad thrown in, hardly ever mad except at the start in the play's set-up scenes. A proud Negro uber-servant is pitted against a proud Jewish matriarch. It's a stylized clash of wills -- less Jack v. Giant than Jack v. Jacqueline. But fact is we're dealing with a retired elementary schoolmarm and her motor car driver during the Truman / Eisenhower years. (Their characters are, reportedly, based on Uhry's own grandmother and her driver.) So Uhry's understated approach to his characters was doubtless in keeping with those times, honest both culturally and thematically. Also, DMD was Uhry's first produced play following the years he toiled as a song lyricist sponsored by composer Frank Loesser (he of Broadway's Guys & Dolls fame). That probably explains his characters' bantering, easy-on-the-ear dialogue.

Audiences like what they see : I have no doubt audiences relate to Daisy and Hoke in part because they are both from cultural / racial minorities from a time back in the day when blackface comedies were all the rage at social fundraisers. Underdogs almost always attract fans and friends. Mostly, though, I would suggest it's because Daisy and Hoke's interactions are *quaint* in the manner of geriatric grams-&-gramps the world over. We needn't learn from them so much as just appreciate them in a sentimental way. We view them and their attitudes and their manners as throwbacks to an earlier time when life was simpler and basic in a skin-deep way but, tellingly, racist and bigoted in the flesh. So. If we just permit ourselves to stay put at the skin-deep stage we can allow ourselves to be charmed and amused. Not unlike the swoon that viewers the world over fall into over the upstairs / downstairs antics in the manor known as Downton Abbey. Still, as Daisy actor Vanessa Redgrave put it three years back during a Broadway remount of DMD with James Earl Jones, can Uhry's script -- almost in spite of itself -- make our hearts "open and release" in 2014?

ACT's production : Director Mario Crudo made key decisions in how to present DMD to Vancouver this year. Primarily he elected to let the mannered stereotypes of Jewish matron Daisy (Nicola Lipman) and Negro car driver Hoke (John Campbell) play themselves out "straight". Not one scintilla of love interest between them as done in the Bruce Beresford film version. Really not much of a break-down-the-racial-barriers cum intimate platonic relationship with each other, either. 

No. Crudo obviously decided his version would simply play out a story of people who work together in close personal proximity over years. He would direct them to be like caregiver-&-patient toward one another. Because even in so doing that still permits their relationship to expand from a "clinical" one to a personal and poignant friendship. [Digression : I relate. I have a handful of former work colleagues whom I "love". I will always cherish the times we had together -- the work, the laughs, the tears, the sharing of time and space over so many years. We stay in touch. We have lunches and dinners. We will not likely, however, invite one another to our kids' graduations or weddings.]

As Hoke, Mr. Campbell evinces the role a one-down black servant would likely have had toward this white older woman who is his charge. He reflects the times -- the culture, demographics, racial / sexual apartheid -- he grew up with instead of the Huey Newton / Lyndon Johnson epoch he grew into as a senior citizen. Quite unlike what Morgan Freeman did in the movie. E.g. while Hoke recognizes some de facto parallels between Daisy being a Jew and himself being black, his subservience to Daisy is never in doubt. He can kibbitz with her, tease her, challenge and argue with her, even feed her Thanksgiving pie at the nursing home at play's end, but he's still the hokey Hoke, her manservant. No hint of equality here. And Mr. Campbell executes this chosen characterization of Hoke admirably. 

For her part Nicola Lipman as Daisy is the reason to drop everything you're doing right this second and go order tickets. Hers is a nuanced and subtle depiction. She tut-tuts both Hoke and Boolie with sharp-minded zingers and matriarch petulance. But most impressive by far is her deteriorating physical posture even while her brain, despite advancing dementia, enjoys moments of lucidity to reveal the finely honed edge of yesteryear. The script wouldn't permit me to believe her claim to Hoke late in the piece that "You're my best friend...!". Only by dint of daily physical proximity. Boolie is Daisy's best friend and they both know it. This most-often-cited quote, not to forget, occurs in the midst of an Alzheimer's moment : at age 95 or so Daisy's addled mind makes her believe that she's a 5th Grade teacher again and late for school. Still, the moment works, if not the quote : her grasping of Hoke's heavy cardigan sweater to lend her support -- lit.-&-fig. -- is simply wonderful acting to behold. And her nursing home turn just moments later literally brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. 

As Boolie, Brian Linds projects a loving and loyal son whose frustration with Mom is ever mitigated by his wealth of feeling for her. Albeit Uhry's script wants us to focus on Daisy and Hoke, Mr. Linds steals an appropriate quantum of attention away from them by his solid performance.  Btw Mr. Linds also does the soundscape for the piece. Brilliant! A Don Shirley Trio knock-off with banjo riffs. Perfect hook among the sequences of short scenes.

Who gonna like : A large number of septugenarians in the seats on opening night clapped most vigorously. I suspect that cohort of theatregoers is the main target of ACT's production. But fans of the '90 flick will want to check out what live actors can do without all the expanse and wash of HD 35mm. film (or whatever the heck it is Hollywood uses these days). For myself I'd go again if only for Ms. Lipman's excellent execution and Mr. Linds' efforts in both his roles.

* Note : "Colored" is a word that is still employed by the century-old American social justice group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known S of 49 as the "N-double-A-CP". And if one is "black" it's okay to call another black person "nigger" as a term of brotherhood. Same as if one is "gay" today -- particularly if also a LBGTQ social activist -- it's okay to refer to oneself as "queer". I make no judgement here. Just reporting the vicissitudes and paradox of street language in the context of ACT's DMD play revival.


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