Having seen the film and stage versions of Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner, Driving Miss Daisy, I've come to realize that Daisy Werthan is one of the more difficult female leads to do well. I didn't see the off-Broadway original starring Dana Ivey opposite Morgan Freeman, which actually opened during the 1986-87 season, but I did see Vanessa Redgrave opposite James Earl Jones when Daisy and Hoke Colburn finally made it to Broadway three seasons ago.
Redgrave was among those who, in the wake of Jessica Tandy's Oscar-winning performance in the 1989 film, have failed to make Daisy at all likable or sympathetic in her early dealings with Hoke - or with her son, Boolie. Hoke is thrust upon Daisy when the 72-year-old retired schoolteacher wrecks her car and, after supplying her with a new ride, no insurance company will touch her. Proud and persnickety, Daisy categorically refuses to interview prospective drivers of her new car, so it's Boolie who must do the legwork and find Hoke.
But once he's hired, it's Hoke who must find favor with Daisy. She's a stern curmudgeon to be sure, but Tandy was able to tap immediately into the Jewish woman's fears - of growing old, of losing control, of appearing affluent - as the source of Daisy's hostility. Of all the Daisys that I've seen since, only Annette Gill, in Theatre Charlotte's 2000 production, tuned into the keening, kvetching quality of Daisy's disagreeableness.
The current Theatre Charlotte effort has much to recommend it, but it lacks a Daisy who can match Tandy or Gill in conveying the incipient warmth and need beneath her icy, self-reliant exterior. With Vicki Rose in her debut at Theatre Charlotte, the years and increasing comfort with Hoke's presence had to do their work over the quarter century that was condensed into 75 minutes on opening night. Even when Daisy declared that Hoke is her best friend, a layer of rueful recognition could have been added.
On the other hand, John Price returns as the only holdover from the 2000 production at Theatre Charlotte, and his Hoke is far more salty, genial, and relaxed than before - with a fresh proud stubborn streak of his own. Bringing Hoke out in further relief, in fact, may have been director Tim Ross's primary goal, for Joe Copley as Boolie keeps the whole Werthan family comparatively strait-laced.
If the obliquity of Uhry's script delights you, dealing with the progress of civil rights and the perils of being African-American - or Jewish - in Atlanta, then Ross' nonchalance with these topical elements certainly chimes in well and you catch the gravitational force bringing Hoke and Daisy together. What seems jarring amid such subtlety is Chris Simmons' lurid set. Conceptually, it does make sense to put the bare bones of Daisy's car down and center stage to emphasize Uhry's title. But that idea relegates the action in Daisy's home and Boolie's office to the faraway corners of the upstage, against a sunset-hued back wall that perversely evokes Tara from Gone With the Wind.
We don't have placards or slides or a chronological list of scenes to help us keep track of the passing years. Instead, we have sound designer Vito Abate's apt gleanings of pop recordings to cue us. That will remain fairly vague to some younger people in the audience, but Price and especially Rose - for Daisy deteriorates more rapidly - set up another reliable calendar, the aging process, with their body language. In the end, when even getting a fork to your mouth is like climbing Everest, little things mean everything. Seeing that collectively as a community in a hall, without needing to hear it spelled out, is part of what makes theater so special.