Road Trip with Alfred Uhry


Silver flasks seem appropriate accoutrements for those sipping a taste of the southern comfort that is "Driving Miss Daisy" as it approaches its silver anniversary.

The South will rise again — but for the first time on Broadway — with playwright Alfred Uhry once again in the driver's seat.

This time — 22 years after taking home the Pulitzer Prize for his off-Broadway success, and off and running with the subsequent Oscar for the film version — Uhry's passengers on the ride are writ large in Broadway and Hollywood history, with Oscar winners Vanessa Redgrave as the flinty yet genteel gentile-like Jewish Daisy, driven by James Earl Jones' hospitable Hoke.

Beginning previews on Oct. 7 — and opening a limited run on Oct. 25 — at the Golden Theatre, "Driving Miss Daisy" is a dramatic GPS of the human heart.

It also reflects a golden age of writing, with Uhry as road warrior — albeit never in a Mel Gibson sense: This Atlanta gentleman has made noise on the theater front for more than 30 years, earning kudos and clout since "The Robber Bridegroom" married wit and wealth on Broadway in the '70s.

But it was "Miss Daisy" that put his career pedal to the mettle. And now, Uhry, a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, rides into the annals as the only writer to win an Oscar, Tony (two) and Pulitzer at different stages of his life.

"Miss Daisy" dates to 1948 through '73, but belongs to the here and now, its universal themes of friendships forged from steel magnolias and wrought iron still molten-hot topics.

"Miss Daisy" doesn't miss a beat. Honk if you care about racial redemption? Playwright Uhry is right on the horn. Drawing on his own southern drawl of a childhood, surrounded and inspired by Miss Lena, his grandiloquent grandmom who could be friendly yet still pissy in her Episcopalian-styled sense of Judaism, Uhry yokes the yin-yang of paean and pain as black-Jewish issues are colored in memory.

The way we were: Being raised Jewish meant relying on some catholic traditions, recalls the "Mystic Pizza" film writer, trying to untangle the mysteries of Southern-fried freilachs. "We were aware of a heritage, but we were big on Christmas and Easter. We gave Easter egg hunts for each other."

Hide the afikomen, OK: But behind the Easter Bunny? And as far as that matzah meal was concerned, it took Uhry an unusually long time to know that crunch time was meant for the seder table. "When I came to Brown" — his college days began in 1954 — "I made some Jewish friends. It felt like I was in a foreign country, like being the only white person at a Joe Louis dinner."

Bout time: He has learned to think — and write — outside the box since. Indeed, the kid who, when introduced to his first lox-and-bagel sandwich didn't know which was the belly of the beast, is no longer a whitefish out of water, and hasn't been for decades.

And though the late Miss Lena has been out of the picture for years, would this play have driven her crazy?

"She would look at Miss Daisy on stage and say, 'That's not me.' And certainly, my grandmother didn't look like Vanessa Redgrave."

Looks can be deceiving. Does writer Uhry anticipate any backlash in the casting of Redgrave, an actress whose prominent anti-Zionist rants in the past have left treadmarks on the trail to Israel?

Such a diehard pro-Palestinian playing the proper Jewish grand dame? Uhry, in essence, couldn't give a damn about such detractors. "I haven't heard any such" controversy over casting. "She's a wonderful actress, and it's absurd to think people would" react like that.

Besides, he says, "I think that issue has calmed down with her," politics is not the backseat driver that once drove her to headlines/headaches for Israeli supporters.

Besides, it wouldn't be the first time the actress could earn accolades for Jewish role-playing. Her part as Holocaust hero Fania Fenelon in TV's "Playing for Time" (1980) played out as one of the highlights of her remarkable acting career, sensitive and timeless in its emotional echoes of horrors harkening to the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, "Driving Miss Daisy" brakes for animus — there is heart and soul that tones every line of Uhry's searing script, as the black Hoke and the white Daisy dance tenuous steps before embracing life at its most delicate.

Uhry takes it personally. "It is remarkable," he marvels, "how so many people respond to a story so personal to me."

And remarkable as well at how time has served as filter for the play's focus. "In the 25 years since I wrote it, young people now see the play as remote a time as I see World War I."

Up periscope: Certainly, the racial perspective has changed in the past 25 years; Uhry affirms that racial issues "have a different relevance today."

He has relied on Jewish history to thread through a number of his works; indeed, "Miss Daisy" planted seeds for the sowing of other southern sensations, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" and "Parade," a musical about the infamous graphic 1915 Leo Frank case, in which a Jewish pencil-company supervisor from Georgia was lynched for the murder of a teenage girl — a crime he did not commit.

All three plays proved a trifecta triumph of germane Jewish life down South, although, says Uhry, "I never intended to write a trilogy." Fourth time the even more charming? There is a fourth play on Jewish life he is preparing to write, says Uhry.

In a way, writing has helped him right some misconceptions he grew up with. "I was raised to believe that German Jews were the best," he says, a notion he razed years ago, gainsaying the class-status implications of such Jewish geography as "nonsense."

The 69-year-old writer — whose many credits include Broadway's "LoveMusik" and the movie "Rich in Love" — is roaring in love himself, married to Joanna Kellogg for the past 51 years. But he long ago gave up being married to those Southern-minted mint-julep versions of Jewishness. Those seders he used to attend at a friend's house have come home to roost — or roast.

"Ha" to the Haggadah? He takes it all seriously. "We plan our own seders now, although I'm not sure the grand rabbi of Jews" would give them his hechsher of authenticity. Two visits to Israel have made it all so real for him, he says, "waking" him up to his heritage.

Holidays take on a high note now for another reason: "I make a great brisket," says Uhry proudly. "and my wife — who's Episcopalian — makes great matzah balls."


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