Performing Arts

‘This play holds so much’: Stars find inspiration in New Theatre’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy’

Charlie Robinson, who plays Hoke, and Michael Learned, who plays Daisy, take a break from “Driving Miss Daisy” rehearsal with Learned’s rescue dog, Penny.
Charlie Robinson, who plays Hoke, and Michael Learned, who plays Daisy, take a break from “Driving Miss Daisy” rehearsal with Learned’s rescue dog, Penny.

It is an article of faith among actors that great plays never give up all their secrets.

A performer can appear in the same play — even in the same role — time after time, but if the material is strong there’s always something new to explore.

So says Michael Learned, the Emmy-winning actress (“The Waltons,” “Nurse”) now in rehearsals to play the title role in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” kicking off the new season at the New Theatre Restaurant.

“I’m still learning about Daisy, and I’ve done this show seven times,” Learned said during a recent interview in the theater’s rehearsal space.

“For one thing, as an actor I don’t want to get locked into a robotic thing … that’s boring. Besides, this play holds so much. You can never really get to the bottom of it.

“Every time I do this show I find a moment where I ask myself: ‘How did I never see that before?’”

“Driving Miss Daisy” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The following year it became an Oscar-winning movie (including best picture, best actress for Jessica Tandy, best screenplay adaptation). Morgan Freeman and Dan Aykroyd were nominated.

The play’s action follows Miss Daisy (Learned), a wealthy Jewish widow in Atlanta, and her African-American chauffeur, Hoke (Charlie Robinson), over three decades. Uhry based the characters on his own mother and her longtime driver. The cast is rounded out by Boolie, Daisy’s businessman son, played by David Fritts.

Over the last 30 years, the play has earned a reputation as a modern classic.

“You can approach it all sorts of ways,” said Learned, who starred in a New Theatre production of the show in 2004. “There have been stripped-down productions — no costume changes and just a couple of chairs for car seats.”

This production goes a bit more high-tech, incorporating projections of historic photos and films to depict the social upheaval of the 1950s and ’60s unfolding behind the Daisy-Hoke relationship.

This is the first time that Robinson — best known for playing court clerk Macintosh Robinson on TV’s “Night Court” — has appeared in a full-blown production of “Miss Daisy,” but he’s already familiar with the play.

“Years ago my late friend Martin Landau directed me and Diane Ladd in a reading of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ at the Actors Studio,” Robinson said. “I knew then it was a role I’d love to do one day.”

night court
On “Night Court,” Charlie Robinson (center) played Mac the court clerk. NBC

Both Learned and Robinson have personal histories that inform their portrayals.

In Learned’s case it was the relationship between her grandmother and her chauffeur, Ambrose. Though they lived in Connecticut rather than in the South, their story uncannily parallels the play.

On “The Waltons,” Ralph Waite and Michael Learned starred as John and Olivia Walton, and Richard Thomas was their son, John-Boy. Gale M. Adler CBS

As Learned explains it, her grandmother was pushy and opinionated, and Ambrose, a born diplomat, was the only man who could handle her.

“She’d say things to make your hair stand on end. Ambrose quit several times, and my grandmother would beg him to come back. It was like a marriage.

“I was once talking to someone about my grandmother and Ambrose, and they said, ‘Ambrose sounds like an Uncle Tom.’ And I said, ‘No, Ambrose was Nelson Mandela.’”

By the end of their lives Ambrose was bathing his feeble employer and friend.

“Theirs was a love story,” Learned said. “Just like Daisy and Hoke’s.”

Robinson said his Hoke is modeled after his own late father.

“He was so clear about what life meant to him. I see Hoke the same way, as a man with a very clear vision of who he was, and what’s expected of us in this life.”

Robinson said his father instructed him that when he encountered prejudice, “I should look them in the eye and tell them how I feel. This was tough-love advice to give a black teen in 1950s Houston, but I listened and my life’s been the better for it.”

The rehearsals under director Dennis Hennessy are often informed by current events, the actors said.

“We had a terrific talk the other day about unconscious bias,” Learned said. “Daisy isn’t overtly racist, but she’s got a bad case of white privilege. Which, of course, is something being talked about a lot these days.”

In addition to its other virtues, Robinson said, the play reminds us of how far we’ve come — and how far we’ve yet to go:

“Until recently we all felt we’d come such a long way in race relations. Black president and all that. But all of a sudden we’ve hit this wall. Two steps forward and one step back.”

What’s most satisfying about the play, Learned said, is that through humor and drama it coaxes audiences to look at their own lives. She recalled a California mounting of the play that invited the audience members — mostly students from a largely Hispanic high school — to a post-play discussion.

“It was one of the best audiences I’ve ever played to,” she recalled. “These kids started talking about the biases in their own community, how longtime residents look down on the newcomers. They were learning about themselves by watching this play.

“At one point we actors just shut up and listened. I remember thinking to myself, ‘So there is value in being an actor.’”

On stage

“Driving Miss Daisy” will play at the New Theatre Restaurant Sept. 27-Nov. 26. See or call 913-649-7469.