One of life’s greatest challenges is facing the loss of control. Everyone hates it, especially the protagonist and title character in the beloved play and film, “Driving Miss Daisy,” given a beautiful, sensitive and heartfelt new production at the Mockingbird on Main.
The 1989 film — directed by Bruce Beresford, with a screenplay by Alfred Uhry, based on his 1987 play — starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. At the 62nd Academy Awards, “Driving Miss Daisy” earned nine nominations, and won four: Best Picture, Best Actress (for Tandy), Best Makeup, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
It’s also a challenge for local actors (or any actors) to step into the shoes of iconic past performances, but the excellent Shelley Walljasper (as Daisy) and Joseph Obleton (as her driver Hoke) make you forget all about Tandy and Freeman, somehow making it look easy.
Directed with the utmost care and class (with a spot-on string soundtrack) by Jeremy Littlejohn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is set in Atlanta and spans 25 years, from 1948 to 1973. When Daisy Wertham, a stubborn, elderly Southern widow, crashes her new car into the neighbor’s garage, her son, Boolie, forces her to take on a chauffeur. He employs Hoke Coleburn, much to her chagrin.
At first, Daisy refuses to rely on a black man to get her from one place to the next and Hoke spends two weeks sitting in the kitchen doing nothing. Gradually, however, Daisy’s prejudices are broken down and, against all odds, he becomes her best friend.
Daisy teaches Hoke to read and write, while Hoke encourages Daisy to let go of her insecurities. As an initial 73-year-old, Walljasper is a real pill as Daisy, and she is very difficult in arguing with Boolie (an equally solid, sympathetic Bradley Heinrichs).
Even after she gets into the “car” (here simply chairs and a steering wheel with a front plate), Daisy is a nervous wreck with Hoke, questioning his every vehicular move.
As the tensions begin to subside, the gentle, wise Obleton, and more relaxed Walljasper develop their deep friendship that’s a joy to behold. They truly understand each other by sharing the pain of discrimination — Daisy is Jewish and is shocked to hear of the bombing of her temple.
Hoke shares his own pain and shock of seeing another black man being lynched.
Obleton is a comforting presence as he calms Walljasper in a late scene as she struggles with dementia. The intimate scene where Daisy calls Hoke her best friend is deeply moving, and both lead actors are powerful, especially with their expressive eyes.
This intermission-less production — which references Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (felled by an assassin’s bullet when he was just 39) — makes an ideal bookend to Mockingbird’s debut in July 2021, “The Mountaintop,” an emotional, haunting reimagining of King’s last night on earth at the Memphis Lorraine Motel.
That Katori Hall play was named for his April 3, 1968 speech, when King said: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.
“But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
With widespread prejudice, intolerance and killing of unarmed black men by police, we still have so far to go, 55 years later. “Driving Miss Daisy” shows us the hope of reconciliation between races, if we’d only stop, listen and understand each other. It’s also perfect for Black History Month.
The Mockingbird production continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Feb. 23-25) at 8 p.m. The theater operates under a “Pay What You Can” model in an effort to make it accessible to everyone. For more information, visit the Mockingbird website HERE.