The Public Theater is offering the three-character play, Driving Miss Daisy, a Pulitzer Prize winner by Alfred Uhry. This character and society study of southern America through the eyes of an illiterate black man and an elderly Jewish woman, was presented in New York at Playwrights Horizon in 1987 (original cast members were Dana Ivey, Morgan Freeman and Ray Gill). In 1989, the play was very successful adapted as a film, starring Jessica Tandy Morgan Freeman, and Dan Ackroyd. It was nominated for nine Oscar awards (including all three principals) and won four.
Set in Atlanta and drawing from Uhry's own southern Jewish background, the story is told through a series of vignettes, progressing through time and eventually covering 25 years. The effects of time are evoked by the actors with mannerisms of age as well, topical references in dialogue, and subtle set and costuming changes. With the superbly penned play in hand, all that is required is an accompanying talented cast - and that has been secured by the Public.
As the play begins, Boolie Werthen is trying to protect his mother from herself. Daisy Werthen has just had a car accident, the typical kind a person has as they advance in age and are not as quick with reflexes as they used to be. Miss Daisy isn't ready to give up her independence, and she doesn't want a private driver as Boolie suggests. But, eventually, she sees the need and, without losing an ounce of pride, allows newly-hired Hoke Coleburn to take her to the Piggly Wiggly, on other regular errands, and to Temple. From scene to scene, we see the relationship of Miss Daisy and Hoke develop from indifference and resistance on Miss Daisy's part and distanced respect on Hoke's part, to a shared reaction to the social climate which is evolving, but still treats Jews and blacks as less than welcome, even if they are southerners. The topical references, which are integrated well into the piece, serve as a reminder of American history circa 1948-1972 that had an effect on many, including our three characters.
Totally inhabiting the character of Miss Daisy is Rosemary Prinz. A familiar face to long-time fans of the television soap opera, As the World Turns, Prinz is also a recent local celebrity due to her appearance in the Pittsburgh-based independent film, The Bread, My Sweet. But Prinz's first love is the stage, and she has a lengthy resume including Broadway (Prisoner on Second Avenue and Tribute, among others), Off Broadway (Steel Magnolias original cast member), and many national companies. Prinz is impeccable as the fiercely proud widow. She gradually slows down, stoops down, and modifies other physical characters to slowly age from a sprightly 72 to age 97. The changes are nuanced and don't overcome Prinz's performance, but shade it perfectly. With a glance, Prinz can project a thought directly to the audience - she really is stunning in the role.
As Hoke, Roger Robinson (The Iceman Cometh, Amen Corner, and Tony nominee for Seven Guitars as well as a starring role in London's Jitney) is Prinz's equal. He doesn't have quite the opportunity to shine in his role, but presents Hoke's quiet wisdom while holding the respectful demeanor of a servant, easing that distance slowly as Miss Daisy progressively relies more and more on him. The evolution of their relationship is touching, very real, and often funny.
Jay Patterson plays Miss Daisy's son Boolie. Patterson has many Off Broadway (K2) and regional credits and plays the loving son well. He, too, ages subtly throughout the play, but most of his changes are in costume and hair. The role of Boolie is present to expose the parts of Miss Daisy's personality that she doesn't exhibit voluntarily and to further display the effects of the current events of some scenes, and Patterson meets the modest demand well.
There is no need for an elaborate set and what has been provided by Michael Schweikardt is functional and works well. The car Hoke drives Miss Daisy in is merely a pair of benches. It wouldn't have been difficult to create a more realistic set piece, but viewing the characters inside a real car would hinder our view of the superb acting. "Subtle" seems to be the word for this production, and costumes (Amela Baksic), lighting (Rui Rita), and sound (Zach Moore) are all in line with that theme and underplay the acting perfectly.
Pulling all of these pieces together is the fine directing by Pamela Berlin. Well paced and smoothly flowing, this production is a little gem that deserves a visit, or a revisit if one has seen the play in the past or is familiar with the film.
Driving Miss Daisy at Pittsburgh Public Theater's O'Reilly Theater through Sunday, December 8. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.