Alfred Uhry’s play from 1988 takes a wing-mirror view of American history: covering 25 years, from 1948 to 1973, in a brisk 90 minutes, it observes the civil rights movement in small details that quickly recede into the distance.
The play accelerates through a series of intimate vignettes, where personal transformations run as smoothly as an Oldsmobile sliding from A to B. This new production from Breda Cashe and Pat Moylan is handsomely cast and spryly designed, and treats its audience like passengers for a warm but slight journey.
Daisy Werthan (Gwen Taylor), you will remember, is an ageing Jewish woman in the American south, proud and self-sufficient (servants notwithstanding). Following a car accident, she is assigned a garrulously upbeat driver, Hoke (Ernest Perry jnr), through the intervention of her loving, exasperated son, Boolie (Simon Delaney).
Uhry favours bitter-sweet comedy over pain, and so does director John P Kelly’s production, something the opening scene makes clear. Delaney’s Boolie plays merrily to the gods in expansive declamatory gestures, trickling with jokes to make the situation more palatable to a cutely crotchety mother. But Taylor – turning inwards, weaving her fingers with worry – is a portrait of a once indomitable woman losing her agency, and although it’s a little swallowed up by this stage, her performance is more nuanced.
“One of my rights is to invite who I want – not who you want – into my house,” she says, more kvetch than racist. After all, who could resent having Ernest Perry jnr around? He may speak with the hollering insistence of someone on a bad phone line, but he is spirited and honest to an almost absurd degree. “You probably do alotta things I cain do,” Hoke mollifies Daisy at one point (Uhry’s text writes Hoke’s lines in racialised phonetics), and, whether it’s the society of the time or a man who has learned to smother his feelings, one of them is to display anger.
Progress, though, happens at an abrupt speed, from Hoke's early exoneration of a minor domestic infraction to Daisy's dawning political awareness, right through to the momentous appearance of Martin Luther King at a celebratory dinner that exposes remaining prejudices among the family.
The politics of being allowed inside or left on the outside are neatly reflected in Kate Moylan’s effective design, a kind of de-segregation of spaces where a staircase banister twists up into the form of a tree and flowerbeds encroach on the living-room floor. With Kevin Smith’s fleet lighting, it means that Hoke’s several mimed driving scenes don’t appear too hokey, while Ivan Birthistle’s supple sound design and slow blues soundtrack evoke the passage of time. It all conspires towards a nostalgic look at the good old, bad old days, where transformations and uplift come as swiftly as Hoke’s lessons in how to read. Encouraged to recognise words by the first and last letters, he asks, “We ain’ gon worry ’bout what come in the middle?” No, Hoke, not with this kind of show.
- Until May 28th