Twenty-three years after a hit Off-Broadway run, "Driving Miss Daisy" has motored to Broadway as a star vehicle.
But even the one-two wallop of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones can't make Alfred Uhry's one-act more than it is – a wispy middle-of-the-road family drama fueled by sentimentality.
Odds are you know the plot, thanks to the film adaptation. Daisy Werthan (Redgrave) is an aging Jewish widow in post-World War II Atlanta who's become a danger behind the wheel. Against her wishes, her son Boolie (Boyd Gaines) hires Hoke Coleburn (Jones), a black man, to be her chauffeur and sometime chaperone.
Despite the play's reputation (it won a Pulitzer Prize and ran 1,195 performances), it's a slight series of vignettes laced with bits of social context. The action moves from 1948-73 and leads up to Daisy telling Hoke, whom she once distrusted, that he's her best friend.
Director David Esbjornson (Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?") gives this memory play an aptly dreamy production. There's a floating staircase, a few sticks of furniture and a blank wall where projections of some historic events are seen. Daisy's car is a steering column and a couple of chairs.
If you've seen the movie with Jessica Tandy, who won an Oscar, and Morgan Freeman, who originated Hoke on stage, the recollection of them still looms large.
The key to playing Daisy is conveying the fragility she masks under her proud facade. Redgrave's interpretation makes for a steelier, less vulnerable portrait - a Daisy who's no shrinking violet, even well into her 80s. It's solid work, but her physical choice in the final scene is misjudged.
Jones has the most eloquent voice and eyes around. He puts them to expert use as the plain-spoken and endearing Hoke. Whenever he's in a scene, Jones is the presence you're drawn to.
Gaines brings humor and likability as the slightly puffed-up son juggling his mother, wife and business. He's the third wheel in this company, but more than holds his own. At just 90 minutes, "Driving Miss Daisy" is a theatrical spin around the block – a pleasantly starlit but unchallenging trip down memory lane.
Contrary to popular opinion, giants still walk that tired, old corner of the earth called Broadway. Times being what they are, these giants are often penned into cramped quarters, which prevent them from stretching to their full height. But giants of the theater belong to a magnificent species that is fast disappearing. And when one shows up in your neighborhood, you polish your eyeglasses and go for a look.
James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are, by anyone’s reckoning, two of the last of these titans — stars of uncommon stature (in all senses) who, in combined years of experience, have known and commanded the stage for more than a century. Their fiery, shadow-casting presences have illuminated some of the most challenging roles in world theater. And I would see them in absolutely anything. Even “Driving Miss Daisy,” which opened on Monday night at the Golden Theater.
Ms. Redgrave plays the title character, and Mr. Jones her chauffeur, in David Esbjornson’s revival of Alfred Uhry’s 1987 play. If the production’s stars feel squeezed or confined by what is a very slender work, they never let on. They give responsible, intelligent performances that are infused with two old pros’ joy in the mastery of their craft. And they pull off the deft trick of registering as big as we want them to be without making the play in which they appear seem even smaller than it is.
First staged at Playwrights Horizons, “Driving Miss Daisy” ran for nearly 1,200 performances Off Broadway, and the sources of its appeal remain clear. In tracing the evolving relationship between an elderly Southern Jewish matron and her African-American driver in Atlanta during the mid-20th century, Mr. Uhry allows audiences to feel both patronizing toward, and admiring of, its geriatric odd couple. This combination of sentiments tends to make people glow with a pleasant righteousness, especially when the implicit subject is crossing a racial divide. And it was perhaps inevitable that “Daisy” should win the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama and become a 1989 movie that nabbed the Oscar for best picture.
Yet while Bruce Beresford’s film (which starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman) created an illusion of historic sweep and substance, the play is little more than a series of sketches with the gentle, laugh-a-little-cry-a-little rhythms of a sentimental sitcom. Its vignettes portray a classic clash of wills between an immovable object and an irresistible force that eventually melts into something like love.
Daisy Werthan (Ms. Redgrave) is she who will not be moved, a septuagenarian widow who retains the unbending mien and dictatorial manner of the grade-school teacher she was. Hoke Coleburn (Mr. Jones) is the equally feisty driver — hired by Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie (Boyd Gaines) — who by degrees overcomes his new employer’s reluctance to be driven. Miss Daisy is proud, you see, and she doesn’t want anyone thinking she’s showing off. But Hoke is proud too. Come to think of it, they have quite a bit in common, including their belonging to minorities by virtue of his race and her religion.
Mr. Uhry, a two-time Tony winner (“The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” the musical “Parade”), unfolds his story, which covers some 20 years, with skilled restraint and few surprises. Like David Mamet’s “Life in the Theater,” which is playing just down the street, “Miss Daisy” is a chamber work that functions best in a small space. Burden it with too much scenery and overcharged performances, and its wispy charm can cloy like the fumes that rise from a chicken-filled deep-fryer.
As with “A Life in the Theater,” an attempt has been made here to make “Daisy” loom larger. Scenes are connected by projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) that include footage of civil rights marchers and signs reading “This Is KKK Country” and “Jesus Saves.” The set designer, John Lee Beatty, has done his best to add Broadway-style scenery (a floating staircase and kitchen range) that doesn’t get in the way of what is essentially a “let’s pretend” presentation. (Miss Daisy and Hoke still sit in chairs for the driving scenes, although those chairs now move.)
You still sometimes have the sense that the play is hovering in space, looking for an elusive foothold. Mr. Esbjornson’s staging could certainly be more focused, and make better area-defining use of Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting. And Mr. Gaines, a very fine actor, here uses broader comic flourishes than are his wont, as if they might help fill that big, empty stage.
Ms. Redgrave and Mr. Jones, on the other hand, calmly but forcefully grab our attention and hold it, without appearing even to try. For starters, watch how they walk. Ms. Redgrave crosses the stage with a ruler-straight back and a slicing, air-snipping gait that brings to mind newly sharpened scissors. Her gaze is always willfully blinkered, straight-ahead.
Mr. Jones is first seen shuffling, slightly hunched, but then he unfolds himself into a prouder, taller stance. The hunch is for the white folks who give Hoke a paycheck, but it is only an affectation. (It’s like the booming voice he uses in his first interview with Boolie, like a man helpfully trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak his language.) There is anger in Hoke, but he long ago learned the danger of showing it, and Mr. Jones lets that undercurrent ripple quietly through his performance.
This is matched by the substratum of fear we detect in Ms. Redgrave’s fiercely rigid Miss Daisy. Ms. Redgrave doesn’t have the instinctive command of Southern upper-middle-class tics and mannerisms that Ms. Tandy did in the film. But, like Mr. Jones, she exudes the sense of someone who has taught herself a specific form of self-control to survive. Lapses in this regard alarm her, and there is one beautiful moment when Miss Daisy, remembering a childhood visit to the Gulf of Mexico, suddenly looks as if she had fallen through time.
She corrects herself quickly. But time, of course, is ultimately on no one’s side. And when Miss Daisy’s step starts to slow, and Hoke becomes hunched for real, we feel a chill of mortal attrition. I mean as it affects Miss Daisy and Hoke. Ms. Redgrave and Mr. Jones have yet to shrink one bit.