The Lady & the Chauffeur

Don Fenner’s new production of Driving Miss Daisy at the International Theatre: emphathy, recognition and harmony

Driving Miss Daisy

Marilyn Close and Allen Browne | Photo: Rolf Bock

Driving Miss Daisy is a moving tale of two people forming an unlikely friendship. Set in the American South of the 1950’s and 60’s against a backdrop of racial tensions, the play traces the relationship between the Jewish Miss Daisy Wertham and her Afro-American driver, Hoke.

Directors can emphasise one of two aspects of the play: either, Miss Daisy and Toke are brought together in a kind of unholy alliance against prejudice – “a Jew is a Jew to them folk that always say nigger”- or their relationship develops and deepens thanks to a genuine empathy between the two. Don Fenner’s production stresses the latter.

At the drama’s beginning Daisy, the outstanding Marilyn Close, is unimpressed with the new driver – forced upon her by her son, Booly; and, in her spite, even accuses the chauffeur of stealing, but at the curtain’s close – and after 20 years – she calls out through the haze of her Alzheimer’s: “Hoke. You are my best friend.” Having been confronted by Hoke’s stolid decency and unpretentious manner – a pleasant contrast to the socially aspirant ladies she meets at the local synagogue –, Daisy had been won over.

Hoke needed initial convincing too. His frigid manner and reserve – the result, presumably, of years of racist ostracism – gradually becomes a benevolent jocularity. Daisy is responsible and the tipping point in their relationship comes when she begins to teach the illiterate driver to read.

Whether Hoke relates her hilariously implausible diphthongs to letters on the page is debatable, yet, what is clear is that the moment signals a decisive shift in the association between master and servant. From then on, the two relate to each other with the warm bluntness of the intimate; and, when the news arrives that Daisy’s synagogue has been bombed, Hoke sympathises as a friend already long won, not as a one time enemy converted by a sudden recognition of common interest.

Hoke’s growing self-confidence leads to an increase in his assertiveness. A sly smile starts to appear on the chauffeur’s face, he cunningly negotiates a whopping pay rise and he begins to display flashes of nascent rebelliousness: “I’m no dog, I am a man” he once huffs in a tiff with Daisy.

His occasional belligerence though is a product of the respect with which the Wertham family – Daisy and her son Booly – come to treat him, rather than the contemporaneous civil rights movement: the play, is after all, set in the American South between 1948 and 1973. Not that the play totally excludes us from the changing reality however: we learn at its end that Hoke’s granddaughter is teacher, just as a young Daisy once was.

Fenner’s production is a highly competent interpretation of Uhry’s original drama. Clever use is made of a small number of props – four chairs in a square, for example, as Hoke’s car – and a soundtrack of post-war American dance-hall hits to create an intimate, familial setting. It is the perfect location for two different worlds coming together and finding genuine harmony.

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