Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 25, 2010
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry. Directed by David Esbjornson. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Music by Mark Bennett. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Cast: James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Boyd Gaines.
The answer is, unfortunately, that the show rockets from effusive to ineffective at speeds well past the legal limit. The blame does not lie solely with Redgrave — her chief costar (James Earl Jones), director (David Esbjornson), and set designer (John Lee Beatty) all have a hand in it. But without the right Daisy blossoming at its center, Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play greatly lacks drive.
It must be noted that Redgrave is nonetheless operating at the peak of her ability. Donning an unfussy but robust accent, and comfortable, homespun clothes (the costume designer is Jane Greenwood, perfect for the job), she always convinces as the type of woman who might move from age 72 to 97, witnessing several generations worth of change along the way. She employs general unpleasantness with backhanded fervor, as when she meets the new African-American driver, Hoke Coleburn (Jones), hired for her by her son Boolie (Boyd Gaines), and insists she’ll never use him. She appealingly cracks her disinterested facade when she offers to help Hoke learn to read (she is a long-retired teacher); and she ingratiates herself as she discovers in him someone who shares her then-uncommon-but-soon-to-spread values in equality and humanity.
But you must first and foremost believe that, despite her protestations, Daisy needs both Hoke and Boolie. Redgrave — her dozens of awards, including an Oscar, a Tony, and an Olivier, notwithstanding — is simply not a strong enough actress to pull off that towering a ruse. Though 73 herself, she powers about the stage with such indomitable strength, especially in the earlier scenes, you can't accept that her feet couldn’t properly depress gas and brake pedals. Even as Daisy barrels through her 80s, Redgrave never looks like she bench presses less than 250 pounds at the gym every day before a biscuit-and-bacon breakfast.
Without the specter of time wreaking havoc on Daisy’s body, her personality changes (and occasional stasis) become intellectual rather than emotional pursuits. Because Uhry’s play is not exactly warm to begin with, viewing as it does the 50s and 60s through a historian’s unforgiving lens, it needs to revolve around a woman who realizes very late that life is about giving and taking in appropriate measure. Redgrave's Daisy comes across as determined, clear-focused, and immensely smart, but that’s not a lesson she ever learns.
With Jones, you never doubt that his Hoke lives to serve (if not to be subservient). But his problem is the opposite of Redgrave’s: He looks more his age (he's 79), and comes across onstage, even early on, as much less suitable for being behind the wheel than she. Hoke is supposed to progress from his late 50s to his mid-80s, but Jones never quite recovers from starting so close to the end. His booming voice and supple face give every line its due weight — you can feel his sense of loss infect his spine as he realizes he will miss a chance to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in person — but it’s not quite adequate compensation.
Nor, for that matter, is most of the rest of the production. Esbjornson has avoided flooding the work with an undue sentimentality, but hasn’t provided it with a particular depth of feeling. Those familiar only with the heartfelt 1989 film, which starred Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar), Morgan Freeman (who originated Hoke Off-Broadway), and a stunningly out-of-character Dan Aykroyd, will be shocked at how unmoving and static this production can be. Some of that is endemic to the work, which was intended as an open-eyed exploration of Uhry’s own family rather than a garden-variety tear-jerker, but most of it comes from a crucial size mismatch.
Off-Broadway, the work's spare theatricality may have been absorbing, but those techniques have real trouble filling a full-size house — even one as comparably intimate as the Golden. The scenic designer is crucial in helping escort a tiny show to Broadway size, but John Lee Beatty has hardly strained himself on this assignment: The cars that are so central the story are represented by a bench-and-chair combo on a revolve, and are augmented by a few textured walls, small furniture pieces, a moving staircase, and practically nothing else. The overall effect looks considerably more cheap than it does charming.
The most consistently successful aspect of the production is Gaines, who’s giving what is for him a traditional performance, but nicely fits into the role of the well-meaning (but not always well-behaving) son. Modulating his character’s concern for his mother with his own liberal ambitions and external conservative strictures (Boolie’s wife and clients are nowhere near as forward-thinking as he is), Gaines occupies both the physical and dramatic center his cast mates can't, and it’s he who thrusts the action forward in spite of Redgrave’s and Jones’s grinding incongruities.
No one, however, is capable of completely suppressing the simple power of the script, which echoes with love and respect for a place and people who’ve long since motored over the horizon. Driving Miss Daisy is a lovely reminder of the value of friendship, in whatever unconventional form it may take, that reveals the best and worst in us as life moves toward its inevitable conclusion. Uhry sees no particular end to the change, the growth, and the evolution of the human spirit when it’s allowed to speed on its way. That only makes it sadder that so many aspects of this production are reluctant or unable to take themselves out of Park.