Michael Learned in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’: ‘Waltons’ star in Alhambra production
Michael Learned, who won three Emmy awards for best actress in portraying mother Olivia Walton on the CBS series "The Waltons," has taken the stage at Alhambra Theatre & Dining in the lead role of "Driving Miss Daisy."
"Driving Miss Daisy" began Wednesday and continues through March 17.
The play, which earned author Alfred Uhry a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama, represents a change of pace for the Alhambra, which historically has featured musicals and comedies.
Learned plays Daisy Werthan, a Georgia woman whose son, Boolie, hires chauffeur Hoke Coleburn when it's time for Daisy to turn in her car keys.
Learned and Lance Nichols, who plays Coleburn, have portrayed the couple in three previous productions over the past decade.
Boolie is played by Michael Edward Hodge, a New York-based actor who has portrayed Boolie three times with another cast.
The story pairs Daisy, a Southern Jew, with Hoke, a black chauffeur, during a 25-year journey of exploring bias, understanding and friendship. The timeframe is 1948-73, a period of historic social change in the United States and the South. The story is based mostly in Atlanta.
During the play's timeframe, Daisy ages from 72-97; Hoke from 60-85; and Boolie from 40-65.
The movie, based on the play, was released in 1989 and starred Jessica Tandy as Daisy, Morgan Freeman as Hoke and Dan Aykroyd as Boolie. It also had other characters, including Boolie's wife, Florine, played by Patti LuPone, and housekeeper Idella, played by Esther Rolle.
Television viewers met Learned, 73, during "The Waltons," a story of a large family during the Depression and World War II. The show, which featured the signature farewell of "Good night, John-Boy," aired 1972-81. John-Boy was played by Richard Thomas.
Learned went on to earn another Emmy for "Nurse," a CBS series from 1981-82.
New Orleans native Nichols, 57, stars in the HBO drama series, Treme, which follows New Orleans natives as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
Hodge is a native of Indiana with stage experience in New York and Europe.
The three actors, along with Alhambra producer and director Tod Booth, discussed the play, theater and careers Monday afternoon.
What do you want people in Jacksonville to know about "Driving Miss Daisy"?
Learned: I think that what we want them to experience is to have an experience, to take the ride. It's called 'Driving Miss Daisy' and Miss Daisy is the one who takes the ride. Hoke takes her from her biases, which she is not aware that she even possesses, to the end of the play where Hoke is her best friend. I think Tod, our director, said it. He said everybody has a crotchety old aunt and a son who tries to do the best thing.
Nichols: I want people to walk away with, 'I know these people. I recognize this lady. She is my grandmother, she was my aunt. This guy here, I recognize who he is.' There are so many themes in this play that I think will resonate. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have one or both of our parents around, we will all come to the day we have to deal with the issue when our parents are no longer able to take care of themselves. I think there will be something in this play that everybody in the audience can relate to on some level.
Learned: I'm always happy when I sense that the audience is feeling a feeling.
Nichols: Michael and I have done this show several times and Eddie (Hodge) has done it, too, but with a different cast. Whenever we have a Q&A, one of the consistent things I hear from people who saw the movie is, 'wow, I didn't remember there was so much humor.'
How has this play changed you, or has it?
Nichols: The first time we did it, I actually was going through a Miss Daisy situation with my dad. My dad was 89 years old and had Alzheimer's. He was set up in home hospice care. When we started rehearsals, I pulled the director and stage manager aside and said I expect to get the call any day that my dad has passed. Ten days into rehearsal, I got that call. So suddenly this play had a different, a personal, meaning for me, and I remember opening night. There is a speech that I give that I remember kind of almost feeling my dad's spirit inside of me that whole performance. Whenever I do this play, I use it as sort of a dedication to my father.
The Hoke I created is sort of a composite of my dad, who is an old Mississippi boy, and my ex-brother-in-law, who also was an old Mississippi guy. I sort of blended them together to create my interpretation of Hoke.
Learned: No matter how many times I've done it, it's always new. That speaks of a classic. I never get tired of this play. I have done plays where by the second week I am just pulling my hair out from the roots, and I never feel that way.
Hodge: I find something new all the time, some new nuance, some new meaning in what my character says, or something that Mama says to the character. The dynamic changes all the time. It is one of the favorite plays as an actor that I've done.
Learned: The audience brings so much to it, too. They are like another character in the play. I've always felt that way. Some laugh more than others. Most people are deeply moved at the end. For me, it is a very personal play, too, because my grandmother had a chauffeur named Ambrose. Their relationship was very similar. He knew every family secret. She told him everything. He took care of her when she became a little senile and he was devoted to her …. They had this tempestuous relationship and yet he always wore his chauffer's hat and she always sat in the back of the car.
Is this the first drama at the Alhambra?
Booth: It does have comedic flair to it, but yes, it is one of the most serious shows we've done. But like 'Steel Magnolias,' it certainly has that audience appeal. It's still wonderful entertainment. The most important thing to say about this play is it won a Pulitzer Prize. It doesn't start out with two-dimensional characters. They are written as three-dimensional characters and we can bring our real experiences to it. It has a sense of reality. This is character-driven, not just situational. And it covers a monstrous period of time, 25 years.
Do you ever tire of the part?
Hodge: Not me. I think in an actor's career, very rarely does a role come that you just say, 'it fits like a glove,' and I can honestly say that is Boolie. It's been a role that means a great deal to me, as an actor and as a person. I love the role.
Booth: This changes their perceptions, too, by maturing as people. Things happened the last 10 years that affected them.
Learned: My husband had to take his mother's car away. He was designated as the one. Oh my, this lovely Catholic saint, oh boy, she was (angry). She would call him and she threatened. She called the police on him. This is a woman of great dignity, a beautiful woman, I loved her. For Daisy, her independence is taken away, so initially she is pretty upset with Hoke because he represents that to her.
Booth: But having experienced that with his mother, did you experience that sense the first time you did the show?
Learned: I used her actually and also she developed Parkinson's and I used that with Daisy.
We bring our life experiences to it. I wonder when my kids are going to have to take my car away.
When you are doing a work that so many people have seen on the screen, how does that change the audience perception?
Learned: Husbands have come up to me and said, 'my wife dragged me to see this but I liked it better than the movie.' It speaks for the play.
Booth: This started as a play and then became a movie and when they do that, there are some changes they have to make. The original intent was to put it on the stage and to see that happen in the minds of the viewers.
Don't forget selective memory. When we see a movie, we see certain things. But in doing the play, there are so many things I see in the play that I didn't attend to in the movie. I saw the movie before my dad died and having my dad pass in the meantime, all of a sudden I am seeing other levels of depth there.
Nichols: When I was cast, I deliberately did not go back to look at the film. I deliberately did not want to emulate Morgan Freeman. I wanted to make Hoke mine. I've only seen it once. I haven't seen it since. I don't want to see it.
Learned: If it's on TV, I won't watch it.
Hodge: I have only seen the movie once and I have never gone back. I just did not want to be influenced by anything that they did. … In any film, I think the score has a lot to do with how the film wants you to feel as an audience member. In this play, that's not the case. The audience is actually left to reflect and to experience the feelings that are natural to them at that particular moment. We don't spoon-feed the audience anything — oh, you are supposed to feel sad here, oh, you are supposed to feel remorseful. It doesn't do that, which I think makes it a much better experience.
There are more characters in the movie, but just three in the play for audience members to watch. Does that matter?
Nichols: They have to focus on just these three people.
Learned: Florine, Idella, you don't see these people, but they are very real. The fun of an actor is to create those people onstage so that the audience does get a sense.
Booth: Don't forget a movie film is a director's medium. He is making all the choices. He puts his stamp on it. The theater is an actor's medium. The actors bring these people to life. They are real people that you see on the stage, real people in real situations, and they influence each other. The audience will change tempos by laughing, it will change pauses. A movie, you can sit back and watch. By what you bring to the theatrical experience, the actors respond appropriately.
Learned: Every night is different.
Nichols: If I could make the same kind of money in theater that I do in film, I would have no desire to do film.
Learned: Theater is like you're a racehorse and you run the race. Television is like you're a plowhorse and you plow the field. Television is hard work. You're tired, 16-hour days. When we were doing 'Nurse,' a 19-hour day, a long day. But theater, you get to run the race.
Sometimes it's terrifying. Whenever I do a new play, it takes me two weeks. I've done this (play) before, so it's not as scary, but it's new each time when you have a new director. But with a new play, the audience teaches me, 'there's a laugh there,' I didn't know there was a laugh there.
Nichols: You can never make the assumption that the laugh that you got at this line last night is going to be in the same place. There have been times that they laughed at lines and I say, huh?
Learned: Or a laugh line that you know is a laugh line and nothing happens.
How do the audiences differ around the country with this play?
Booth: This audience, because of the South, is going to attend to things that a Northern audience wouldn't necessarily attend to. It makes reference to a football game between the 'Dogs and the Jackets. They're going to react to that.
Nichols: They will get the reference to the Piggly Wiggly.
Learned: I had never heard of a Piggly Wiggly. … The interesting thing to me is Boolie and Daisy are Georgia Jews, which is another whole color that is very interesting.
Booth: The historical period...affects the show. A temple gets bombed. All of these things happened. None of us should ever forget them because they made us what we are today and who we are today.
Learned: Daisy says twice in the play, 'I am not prejudiced,' and I think she honestly believes that. We all have some kind of bias somewhere in us, and she does, but she doesn't know it. She learns.
Nichols: The other thing that I remember is having couples, particularly people who have been together for a long time, come up and say, 'Oh my God, some of the things you say remind me of me and my wife arguing.'
Learned: I think, too, I have been through segregation and integration in my lifetime, watching the schools being integrated in Alabama on a black-and-white TV in New York and being appalled, and yet there was a girl that I knew, she was a friend of mine, she was African-American. She turned to me and was furious with me. She said, 'when have you ever seen a black person in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar?' And I thought that never even crossed my mind. I didn't know. That's Daisy. She doesn't know any better. She doesn't know she has bias. I think it's something people can relate to.
What is the one question you are always asked?
Learned: Is John-Boy a nice guy? He is the sweetest guy in the world. Did we really love each other the way it came across on the screen and the answer is definitely yes, almost to the point of neurosis. The (Walton) kids were at my wedding. They are like my kids. They are all middle-aged now with their own kids, so they have their own lives, but just like any family, we stay in touch all the time.
Nichols: Was there ever a time I wanted to give up and do something else and my response is always no. Either I was too stupid or too stubborn or maybe a combination of both, but I get asked that a lot. I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I always say, this picked me, I didn't pick it. When I first started college, I was actually a pre-med major and at the end of my first year, I had a 2.3 GPA. I was barely hanging on. I switched my major to become a theater major and I went from a 2.3 to a 3.8 GPA. I said I could always play a doctor.
Hodge: The most-asked question I get is what advice do I have for new people coming in. I have the same standard answer — be nice to people. In this business, one of my acting teachers once said there are five people in this business and you know all of them. There is no room for attitude, there is no room for large egos, just be nice to people and you will have a career or some semblance of a career, really. That's all there is to it. It's very simple.
Learned: You don't have to be nice at the expense of your integrity. You don't have to casting-couch it.
Nichols: You need to understand that this is a collaborative art. No one person, no one department is more important than anybody else and sometimes when people think it's about them, that's where problems come in. It's a collaboration, including everybody.