If you didn't have a calendar, you might think that, in terms of racial relations, we're living in the 1950s. There are explosive confrontations between predominantly white police forces and black communities in several cities, and then the Academy Award nominations include no actors of color among the 20 nominations in four categories. This, in a year when the performance of David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma has been universally lauded.
Is it racial prejudice? Well, last year, the Oscar for best actress went to Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave, and two other black actors were nominated. If we view race relations in the U.S. through the fractured lens of Hollywood, the result is a mixed bag.
Back in 1989, the Oscar-winning movie was a graceful and affectionate look at a budding relationship between a wealthy white Southern lady and her not-so-much-younger black chauffeur. This was the film version of the play that the year before had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and soon Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry became everyone's favorite little fable for how we could all just get along.
Oversimplified as the script is, Driving Miss Daisy has an undeniable charm. And this production by TrueNorth at French Creek in Sheffield Village works hard to wrap the audience in a warm embrace. Although the acting in this three-hander never quite plumbs the depths of the characters at hand, director Tyson Douglas Rand keeps the pace and focus of the piece on task. The result is an earnest if not exceptional rendition of this well-loved work.
Set in Georgia from 1948 to 1973, the play begins after a nasty car crash, with elderly Daisy at the wheel — an accident that took out the garage and a shed. The sound effects of the crash happen simultaneously with Daisy's first entrance, and thus comes across as a bit of an odd juxtaposition. In any case, her grown son Boolie (a solid David Hess) decides to hire her a driver, against her vociferous wishes, and soon Hoke Colburn is on the scene — cooling his heels in the kitchen since Daisy refuses to let him drive her anywhere.
Of course, as the title suggests, she eventually relents and the story starts rolling, as we learn more about Daisy's history as a widowed Jewish ex-schoolteacher. Although Hoke's life is not so clearly delineated, it's clear that he has had his share of struggles.
DMD touches on issues of prejudice, but does it with such a light touch that the moments at times fail to register. For instance, when Daisy is on the way to a dinner where Dr. King is scheduled to speak, she invites Hoke to attend with her. But he is insulted by the belated invitation and decides to stay outside instead. This beat, like several others in the production, feels rushed and unclear, leaving the audience to conjure the meaning for themselves.
In the title role, Marcia Mandell uses her diminutive stature to fine effect as she dominates her household. And she has some tender moments later on when Daisy softens towards Hoke and finds his friendship a welcome palliative as age overtakes her character. But early on, Mandell's sometimes over-extruded Southern accent makes throwaway lines too laborious. And she never quite masters the effortless rigidity of this former schoolmarm who keeps everyone quivering at the end of her piercing gaze.
In the less challenging and more reactive role of Hoke, Luther "Pete" Robinson exudes a calm and reasonable demeanor as he eases himself into Daisy's world. When he informs Daisy about the bombing of her synagogue, and then shares the memory of a lynching he witnessed, they both feel the effect of prejudice in very personal ways. But Robinson needs a bit more edge when, offended by Daisy's insistence that he drive on when he needs to "make water," he pulls the car over and leaves her alone.
The most effective part of Driving are the casually bigoted assumptions that drive so much of our problems, even to this day. When Daisy finds a can of salmon missing from the pantry, she assumes Hoke took it because, "They're like little children. They want something and they take it." When Hoke enters later with an explanation and a replacement can, we see where such assumptions can lead.
It's a mild approach to a discussion of racial intolerance. And indeed, the gentility of the script seems quaint in hard-edged 2015, as we are immersed in hateful prejudices between and among many races and religions. Curiously, Driving Miss Daisy has evolved from a feisty piece that addresses intolerance to a rather languorous play that offers us some shelter from that raging storm.