MISS DAISY IN BLOOM
April 15, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Thirty-three years ago tonight, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy opened Off-Broadway at the old Playwrights Horizons Studio Theatre on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row (now replaced by a theatre complex that boasts two theatres). I saw it some six months later on a night so cold that when I walked out into the bitter wind the tears froze as they ran down my cheeks. It featured Dana Ivey as Miss Daisy, the feistily independent old woman, whose twenty-five-year relationship with her chauffeur Hoke, as played by Morgan Freeman, made for one of the most indelible evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre.
Miss Daisy’s son Boolie, the third member of this three-character play, was winningly played by Ray Gill, who tragically died of AIDS at age forty-two just five years later. This threesome, and the beautiful simplicity which which it was staged by Ron Lagomarsino, are what I treasured most about this production. Uhry has told the stories often how he based Miss Daisy on his own grandmother, a “doodle,” as Boolie calls her, a description that made me relate to the character personally because my own grandmother, Helen Gladstone Brown, was a Miss Daisy; a Jewish southern belle who never lost the musical North Carolina lilt to her voice, in spite of moving to Brooklyn as a teenager, never to return to Durham where she was born and raised (coincidentally, I’m also a Uhry on my father’s side).
Alfred Uhry was born in Atlanta in 1936, and drew from his family tree in order to create the play, as he described in a 2011 interview: “Two of the characters were composites of people in my family — my parents, my grandmother, my brother-in-law, my aunts, a few cousins and myself. The third character, Hoke Coleburn, was pretty much based on Will Coleman, my grandmother’s chauffeur. I wrote very specifically about time and place. All the events really happened, one way or another, though I moved things around a bit to serve my purposes. It was a family memoir, and I didn’t think it would have much appeal to anyone who wasn’t familiar with Atlanta in those days.”
Due to exceptional reviews, what was supposed to be a limited five-week run in an intimate 74-seat space on 42nd Street at Playwrights Horizons, turned into a three-year run, eventually moving to a larger theatre (the John Houseman, also on Theatre Row and now demolished). That it would earn Uhry the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was a total surprise, and when the film version was produced two years later, he received the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (it is also, to date, the only off-Broadway play to go on to win Best Picture). When he picked up his Oscar, Uhry began his acceptance speech with a surefire laugh line: “Thank you very much. I guess I’m lucky that my grandmother was such a terrible driver.”
Jessica Tandy, who won Best Actress that evening, was (and still is) the oldest winner in that category. She was eighty-one at the time and at the apex of a distinguished career that had already earned her three Tony Awards for Best Actress, which includes creating the role of Blanche DuBois in the original production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947.
The reason for the success of Driving Miss Daisy in both mediums is that Uhry tells its story honestly, without unnecessary embroidery. On stage, its physical production consisted of a minimum of props and nothing more than stools, chairs and a table, which added to its beauty and simplicity (credit to set designer Thomas Lynch). The car was suggested by placing two stools on stage — which is all that is really necessary. In an email from Ron Lagomarsino, he told me “I used stools for the car — even simpler than chairs. One for her, one for him. An easy chair and side table for her house. And a palette that slid on and off UL housing a desk for Boolie’s office and astroturf for the cemetery. We started with many other elements but I kept paring it back and back.”
Though it still employed a certain minimalism, a 2010 Broadway revival which starred James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave was criticized by some for extending beyond that conceit with the unnecessary use of elaborate filmed projections and a lot more in the way of props and scenery (a staircase, an actual kitchen stove). Perhaps it was justification for charging $150 for an orchestra seat with audiences demanding to see what constitutes such high prices these days.
In 1987, the role of Hoke Coleburn was the one that finally put Morgan Freeman on the map. At age fifty (the same age as Uhry when the play was produced), Freeman had been a working actor for thirty years, but still struggled from job to job. A month before his success with Miss Daisy, he received excellent notices for the film Street Smart, which didn’t do much business. However, by the following February, Freeman’s name was among those nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It was the first of his five nominations, winning in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby. And though Freeman was chosen to repeat his role when the film of Miss Daisy was made, it was a shame that Dana Ivey’s performance wasn’t preserved as well, since she really nailed every aspect of it on stage. Like Uhry — a fellow Atlantan — you felt she knew this woman in her bones and easily conveyed the character’s ages, going from seventy-two to ninety-seven (Ivey was forty-six).
Of course, when the film of Miss Daisy was announced there were many actresses who were considered (and many who coveted it) since it was such a juicy role for anyone over the age of fifty. Among those bandied about were Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and even Lucille Ball. Angela Lansbury pursued it, but was turned down, though she would finally get to play it on stage at age eighty-six (!) in a 2011 Australian tour opposite James Earl Jones, then a mere eighty. A video of that production was broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances in 2015 and is available for viewing at the PBS website.
Ineligible to win a Tony Award for Miss Daisy, Uhry eventually won for his second play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo (also directed by Ron Lagomarsino). In so doing, Uhry claims a vaulted position as the only individual to win an Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for dramatic writing. Something of a late bloomer, Uhry described in that same 2001 interview how he turned to writing his first play: “I was here in New York, trying to be a lyricist writer and not really liking my lyrics very much. I found it very hard and very unrewarding. And I always knew that Sondheim was so much better than me, what was the point? In the back of my mind I had always wanted to write a play, but I didn’t have the guts or the time or the this or the that. I graduated from writing lyrics to writing the book of musicals, which I certainly liked better, and then I wrote Driving Miss Daisy.”
Confessional note: with my first book published at the age of sixty … here’s to all of us late bloomers.
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