Most of the ingredients for a persuasive production were present at the opening of this new national touring company of “Driving Miss Daisy” at Hartford’s Bushnell, notably a potentially fine cast, all three of whom have played their roles in previous sit-down productions of Alfred Uhry’s play in Chicago (Dorothy Loudon), Birmingham, Mich. (Ted Lange) and Atlanta (Al Hamacher).
But the ingredients didn’t cohere on opening night, Uhry’s collection of vignettes never coming together as a convincing whole. Despite this, the play’s unpretentious tart-sweetness survived.
What seemed all too evident were insufficient rehearsal and weak direction, resulting in performances that were sometimes tentative and which seldom really related to one another. Adding to the problems were a metallic, disembodying sound system, a big stage and a misguided attempt at giving the production more scenery than it needs. More power, then, to the trio of actors — and the play — in that they survived as well as they did.
In addition to the expected furniture and props that define different locales in different areas of the stage, there’s a backdrop montage of Atlanta buildings , including a Piggly Wiggly, a synagogue and Boolie Werthan’s mansion home, replete with Christmas lights. It does the play no favors, and in the early scene in which black chauffeur Hoke Coleburn drives Jewish widow Daisy Werthan to the local Piggly Wiggly, it’s disorienting when she gets out of the “car” to go to the store and heads off into the wings rather than toward the Piggly Wiggly on the backdrop.
Three performances of considerable potential could still be discerned, Loudon and Lange coming across as well matched. Loudon is wittily acerbic when her Daisy is still comparatively young, and she’s particularly good in the play’s final scene in which, as a sick old woman of 97, she performs with utter stillness and simplicity.
As Hoke, Lange settled into his performance more and more successfully as the evening unfolded, ultimately overcoming an early tendency to play too broadly. Throughout, Hamacher made much of what is a surprisingly telling supporting role as Miss Daisy’s amusingly long-suffering son.
It remains to be seen whether there’s an audience for another national tour of “Driving Miss Daisy” following its original tour with Julie Harris, more than a few sit-down productions around the country and the hit film with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. But this production deserves to be further rehearsed and played into better shape than it was in Hartford, where Robert Waldman’s incidental music did more than director Jeff Lee to cobble together the production.