GLOUCESTER — Don’t dismiss “Driving Miss Daisy” as the slim exercise in character studies you already know. Under the deft direction of Benny Sato Ambush, three extraordinary actors at the Gloucester Stage Company deliver delicately tuned performances that uncover depth and nuance from stock characters.
Johnny Lee Davenport, Lindsay Crouse, and Robert Pemberton offer revelatory performances that draw us completely into the heart of this “family.”
Playwright Alfred Uhry earned two Tony Awards for his larger family dramas, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and the musical “Parade,” but “Driving Miss Daisy” is a chamber piece that fits snugly within an era (Atlanta from 1948 through 1973). The temptation is to imbue the play’s characters with a sense of symbolism at this time of seismic social change, so that ornery, elderly Daisy Werthan represents the changing attitudes of white folk; her attentive son and successful businessman Boolie is the well-meaning but conservative establishment; and Hoke Coleburn, the chauffeur Boolie hires for his mother, becomes a black man patiently waiting for equality.
Director Ambush guides his actors away from archetypes and into the intimate world of the characters. The audience is rewarded with moments we recognize and identify with because they could occur not only at a time of social unrest, but anytime and anywhere with any three people who are so different from one another.
“Driving Miss Daisy” unfolds in a series of scenes that take place over the 25 years Hoke (Davenport) drives for Miss Daisy (Crouse). On the surface, the story follows the breaking down of Miss Daisy’s resistance to having a driver, and to seeing Hoke as anything but a hired hand. Uhry’s scenes also suggest a gentle move forward, as both Daisy and Hoke compromise to find a place of mutual understanding, respect, and, ultimately, friendship. As Boolie, Pemberton serves as referee and coach, providing comic relief and wise counsel without ever playing the fool.
The wonder of these performances comes from the actors’ absolute immersion in them. We watch in awe as Crouse’s Daisy fiercely defends her independence, panics when she has a bit of a nervous breakdown, stubbornly asserts her point of view and brooks no dissent. At the same time, Crouse elicits giggles when she exhibits Daisy’s wry humor and is absolutely radiant when Daisy recalls her first taste of saltwater as a child.
Davenport matches Crouse note for note, introducing Hoke as a man willing to be subservient because he’s in need of a job. He is endlessly patient with Daisy’s demands, but when he draws a line with her behavior in two separate instances and once with Boolie, we all know he is not to be trifled with.
Jenna McFarland Lord creates a set that suggests the various playing areas with different sections of ceiling molding: graceful filigree for Daisy’s living room, plain for the garage and a simple Star of David for the temple where Daisy worships, all clearly defined by John Malinowski’s lighting.
Ultimately, the beauty of this production comes from the performers’ emphasis not on Daisy and Hoke’s ability to find things in common with each other, but in their openness to learning to love and respect their differences.