by Sam Juliano
What evolved from an innocuous enough beginning on an off-Broadway stage, has now achieved the ultimate validation in a production at the Golden Theatre that has attracted two of the last remaining acting icons in a production that has pleased both the audiences and the critics. To assert that Driving Miss Daisy, written by southern playright Alfred Uhry, is anything more than what it is -a slight chamber drama with some some surprising character chemistry forged by a funny and often affecting clash of wills, would not only serve to overstate the work’s intent, but also to strip bare the fascinating underpinnings that make the metamorphosis of an unlikely relationship so believable and so stirring.
English theatre icon Vanessa Redgrave and the towering African-American thespian James Earl Jones almost seem tailor-made for the casting that has yielded a solid incarnation of a cranky and dictatorial Jewish-American matriarch named Daisy Werthan, whose years as a driver and self-imposed recluse have forced some concessions due to physical shortcomings imposed by aging, and Hoke Coleburn an equally headstrong driver, who uses various tactics like flattery and small-talk to wear down his new emplyer’s initial resistence to be driven. Coleburn was hired by Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie, (played here wonderfully by Boyd Gaines, though the tableux structure of the revival doesn’t allow for the kind of profound humanity that was projected by Dan Alroyd in the 1989 film version that famously -or infamously for some- captured the Best Picture Oscar) a successful Georgia businessman, who is as devoted to his mother as he is towards his career sustaining a family business. To offset the extreme minimalism of David Esbjornson’s staging, which features a sepia box, spare furniture, a few chairs and a staircase to replicate the driving experience, Gaines accentuates some of the play’s humorous lines in broad flourishes, while his renowed co-star Jones employs his sonerous, bass-heavy voice to beguile the audience with his own transcription of lines that over the years have become ingrained in the memory. It can well be argued that Jones’ stage presence and booming delivery are ill-suited to this character (far more subtlety evoked by Morgan Freeman in Bruce Beresford’s film) and that he exaggerates his subserviance to the point where he becomes a caricature. Jones shares some of the work’s most memorable lines with Redgrave, but there’s no denying his approach is far more bombastic than the one taken by Freeman, who used a more cerebral approach culled from the wisdom that comes from experience. Redgrave dosen’t even attempt the homespun Southern accent perfected by Jessica Tandy, but instead imparts a rural twang that does suggest a small town dialect, even if not one that firmly roots the film in it’s specific locale. Redgrave’s gait, demeanor and walk are far more suggestive of the character than her non-descriptive voice. At times her volume in muted and she speaks to fast as in the instance near the beginning when she ribs her son for socializing with Episcopalians. The episodic nature of the stage progression may well be less resonant than the linear movement managed by the film version, and as a result Redgrave can never get completely into the skin of her character the way Tandy did, coming off as meaner and more resistent to the change that eventually gives Daisy and the relationship more emotional heft. She lacks the upper-class mannerisms of her aging southern character, though discipline and an instinct for survival are effectively projected. By the time Redgrave tells Boolie to “charm the nurses” in the play’s moving finale, one is well enough convinced the character has been more than adequately interpreted.
Esbjornson seems to purposely avoid giving the work a more intense focus, and a firmer foothold to avoid bogging this obvious audience-pleaser with the wistful austerity that marked the earlier stage version and the film. The reason of course is not to compromise the play’s major selling point and the reason why audiences keep coming back to it: the irresistible one-liners that are almost a guilty pleasure of sorts. They are almost always rooted in racial stereotypes (like the funny scene when Daisy erroneously accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon from her cupboard, telling her son “you know how they all are”) or disparities of class and social status. But this has always been the play’s appeal, and taken within that context, they provide for an entertainment that at least in the film version allowed for some valid emotion and some universal truths.
Uhry can never be blamed for taking the easy road. Hence Miss Daisy often reflects on her difficult childhood and the years she struggled as a schoolteacher, but she’s not a magnanimous soul, and seldom smiles. She even criticizes the modest salary Hoke receives directly from Boolie (she begrudgingly refers to it as “highway robbery”) but slowly, Hoke reaches her and removes her predilection for suspicion and isolation. Still, she retains her unforgiving nature to the end. Uhry even suggests that Miss Daisy is socially constricted to ever fully accept Hoke as her equal despite her impassioned attendance at a Martin Luther King rally, and the bombing of the synagogue that Boolie has been driving her to. (again this aspect was more intricately delineated in the film version). A sizable critical minority have always taken issue with the social status of the central relationship, which doesn’t conceal the larger picture, in which blacks are treated as second-rate citizens. Uhry’s aim was to present the prevailing social mores of the time and not to pass judgement on the changes brought on by time and social unrest. Interestingly enough, director Spike Lee was highly critical of the film as well, as he felt it painted blacks in a bad light, and promoted the (aforementioned) typical stereotypes. Yet, there’s an undeniable universality in the story of a person who changes after dealing with the the long-held object of racial disdain and mistrust head-on, opening one’s eyes to the other side of the human coin. Basically in a sociological sense the play presents a kind of overview of the changing values and times in the South, spanning as it does from 1948 to 1972, while inevitally alluding to racism and prejudice. If a viewer can set aside the social constrictions and the unflattering stereotypes, and allow the unlikely bonding and valid friendship take hold, this admittedly slight material can develop into something much more a series of one line zingers and an unlikely instance of bonding. At it’s barest it’s a story of friendship.
Warts and all, the Golden Theatre production does nothing seriously harmful to upend that tradition.
Note: Lucille, Broadway Bob and I attended the Thursday evening (February 3) performance at the intimate Golden Theatre on 45th Street. We enjoyed a late night dinner at the Dish afterwards.