Hello, readers! My name is Alexander Richardson, and I am so excited to be joining the chorus of reviewing voices here at the River Cities' Reader. I am a theatre junkie who’s been fortunate enough to work on over 100 productions, and while I'm a firm believer that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of art, my hope is that I can get you out to support our amazing local-theatre community. But enough of me. On to the important stuff!
Driving Miss Daisy is one of the staples of American theatre. Originally written as a stage play in 1987, (and winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year), it was adapted to film in 1989, and then re-staged all over the nation and the world. Talents such as Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, James Earl Jones, and Angela Lansbury have all lent their voices to Alfred Uhry’s script, but while I’ve heard the play referenced countless times, I have to confess that attending its new production at the Mockingbird on Main was my first true exposure to the material. I finally see what all the hubbub is about.
The play's action stretches from 1948 to 1973, most of which takes place in Atlanta, Georgia. It tells the story of Daisy Werthan, a 72-year-old Jewish woman who has just crashed her car. Consequently, Daisy (Shelley Walljasper) is informed by her son Boolie (Bradley Heinrichs) that she’ll no longer be driving herself, as he intends to hire a Black chauffeur to make sure that she can get where she needs to go. She firmly protests, and not on account of him being a chauffeur. We’re then introduced to Hoke Colburn (Joseph Obleton), Daisy's chauffeur-to-be, and the rest of Uhry's story deals with Daisy and Hoke slowly forming a loving friendship. Along the way, there are beats addressing antisemitism, racism, and elderly care – and they’re all told with subtle humor. Or, if not humor, an honest eye.
Friday's performance started off a little slow (and a little too soft-spoken), but once those opening-night jitters got out of the way and the cast of three settled into their roles, the rest of the night proved to be a delight. Walljasper (a frequent flier on the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse stage) gives a wonderful performance as the titular Daisy. At turns kind and cruel, Walljasper lends her role the weight that it deserves. And as the show neared its end, and Daisy begins to enter the final stage of her life, Walljasper’s portrayal brought tears to my eyes as she expertly showed what old age looks like. Anyone who’s had to watch a loved one grow old and lose their faculties will be touched by her work.
Obleton seemed to struggle with lines at certain points throughout the night, but he’s such a charming and engaging performer that I didn’t even mind. He and Walljasper play well together and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s presence, while Hoke's and Daisy's relationship blossomed naturally and never felt forced. Heinrichs, meanwhile, fills the role of son, boss, and mediator with charm, though I feel Uhry's script doesn’t give Boolie quite enough to do. Still, all the performers felt natural in their roles and played to their strengths.
As I’ve come to expect at the Mockingbird (though, as a frequent collaborator there, I’m probably biased), Driving Miss Daisy's production elements were all handled with care and a sharp eye. Savannah Bay Strandin's set design splits the already intimate Mockingbird stage into four tiny but separate sets, each accompanied by their own swath of gorgeously painted floor. The attention to detail and historical accuracy, both in the set pieces and costuming courtesy of the peerless Bradley Robert Jensen, was superb – though I did spot a couple of suspiciously modern coffee cups. Additionally, Tristan Tapscott's lighting design largely gets the job done, with most of the mini-sets having a practical light onstage, which I'm always a sucker for. And Jeremy Littlejohn's direction wisely steers into the subtle side of the script. The many scenes were each given their own room to breathe and the action never felt rushed, while comedic beats rolled over the audience like warm waves.
There were, however, a few spots throughout the production that seemed to fall flat. On the nitpicky side, I felt the numerous (at least 20) scene transitions hampered the pacing of the show. While the scene breaks are built into the play itself, I thought they could have been sped up somehow. (One scripted sequence clocked in at what couldn’t have been more than 15 seconds, and the transitions into and out of the scene took longer than the scene itself.) On the less nitpicky side, Tapscott made the perplexing choice to light the numerous driving scenes with harsh top light and bright red light, and more often than not, it looked like Hoke was driving Miss Daisy through the seven circles of Hell instead of Atlanta. In general, the driving scenes felt a little hollow. I’m not sure what it was – a lack of sounds you’d associate with a car, maybe, or the pacing of the performance – but I wish those moments in the car felt a little more lived in.
My gripes end there. Regardless of whether you’ve seen it before, don’t miss your chance to catch this charming production of Driving Miss Daisy. It’s somehow both refreshing and disheartening that a script originally written in the 1980s, about the 1940s, still holds so much relevance and nuance here in the 2020s. The issues of xenophobia in America don’t ever really seem to go away, only change with time. As Hoke wisely observes, “Things are changing, but they aren’t changing that much.” This production is a story told with tender care, and it’s the perfect antidote to awful winter weather.
Driving Miss Daisy runs at the Mockingbird on Main (320 North Main Street, Davenport IA) through February 25, and more information and tickets are available by visiting TheMockingbirdOnMain.com.