You can’t fault Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre for choosing to mount a production of Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” The sentimental three-character play, about an elderly Southern widow who is forced to accept the services of a black chauffeur after she’s no longer able to drive, perfectly suits MST’s intimate space, and the play comes with accolades galore: It won a Pulitzer Prize, and the film adaptation, with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, captured Oscars for Best Picture and Best Lead Actress.
Yet “Driving Miss Daisy” remains at best a slip of a play, a sentimental and often humorous character study that chronicles the 25-year relationship between this elderly Jewish woman and her humble black driver.
The story touches on but never really engages the issues of race, class and religion between the years 1948 and 1973, even as real-life events (like the 1958 bombing of an Atlanta synagogue, or the rise of the Civil Rights movement) encroach on the feisty relationship between Miss Daisy Werthan and her driver, Hoke Colburn — an arrangement brokered by Miss Daisy’s much put-upon son Boolie. We watch as the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke morphs from contentious to co-dependent, as the years pass almost subliminally, marked only by the comings and goings of Miss Daisy’s cars and the gradual aging of the two protagonists from their 70s to their 90s.
The role of Miss Daisy has attracted some of our greatest actresses — Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris, Rosemary Prinz, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave and Angela Lansbury have all played the part — and the Mile Square Theatre’s choice of Broadway veteran Barbara Broughton fits right into that tradition. She’s flawless as the haughty Southern widow who wants no part of this driver who has been forced upon her.
Count Stovall matches her tic for tic as the well-meaning Hoke, who understands the outsider status they share in the post-war South even if Miss Daisy (who announces, almost immediately, that she’s “not prejudiced”) doesn’t.
Television veteran Matthew Lawler (“The Family”) shines equally as the doting Boolie, even if his character doesn’t seem to age as dramatically as Daisy and Hoke.
Most of “Driving Miss Daisy” consists of quiet moments of human interaction; it’s a story told with infinite subtlety and few raised voices. When those few dramatic moments do occur, they’re riveting, as when Hoke has to tell Miss Daisy that he can’t drive her to temple because it’s been bombed, or when he chafes against being treated as a servant during a long road trip and stands up for his dignity.
Another scene, when Boolie refuses to accompany Miss Daisy to a UJA dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because it might hurt his business, also makes its point subtly and without judgment. Uhry isn’t interested in heroes and villains here; he’s just telling us what it was like in the South in the early 1960s.
Director Mark Cirnigliaro maintains a remarkably consistent tone throughout the play, but his low-key approach to the material often disappoints as much as it enchants. One of the best remembered scenes from the film — when Daisy, in her 90s and beset with senile dementia, holds Hoke’s hand and admits that he’s the best friend she’s ever had — passes by almost without notice. The finale, which I won’t ruin, conveys the same simple emotions quietly and effectively.
Mile Square Theatre consistently offers quality theater at bargain prices, and “Driving Miss Daisy” is no exception. It may not rock your world, but even so, don’t forget to bring a hankie.
“Driving Miss Daisy” runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Feb. 25. Students and senior citizens can purchase $18 tickets for all performances except Wednesdays. Visit milesquaretheatre.org.