Driving Miss Daisy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 27, 2010
Driving Miss Daisy is the best show on Broadway right now. Especially if you're a fan of thoughtful storytelling and expert acting, this is a production you will not want to miss.
This is a revival of a very successful (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) play (it premiered in 1987); it is also its Broadway debut. One thing that director David Esbjornson and the producing team (led by Jed Bernstein and Adam Zotovich) have shrewdly done is not to overdress their show in scenery and effects. Alfred Uhry's tale of an elderly Southern Jewish lady and her African American chauffeur is presented with forthright simplicity: the playwright's words and the finely tuned instruments of the three actors on stage are all we need to appreciate it.
You probably know the story, at least in broad outline. Daisy Werthan, 72 when we meet her, has just wrecked her brand new Packard (and her neighbor's garage as well), and her son, Boolie, strongly believes that she is no longer equipped to drive. Now Daisy values her independence above just about all else, and she doesn't take kindly to the notion that someone will transport her from place to place; she's also not wild about having a black man (for it is an a priori given that the chauffeur will be a black man in pre-Civil-Rights-Era Atlanta) hanging around her kitchen waiting to do her bidding. Nevertheless, Boolie goes ahead and hires Hoke Colburn to be Miss Daisy's driver. Hoke is himself in his 60s; he's got years of experience behind the wheel and is in need of the job.
Lest you think that Uhry is merely putting into motion an extreme odd couple who will cutely but subtly change each other over time, think again. Driving Miss Daisy is a great play because it has enormous truth and authenticity in it, and respecting the actual way people behave (rather than the way we'd like to see them behave), Uhry makes the transformations of his characters, such as they are, gradual and natural. He's also canny in selecting what to show us: his play spans some three decades, and with only a 90-minute running time quite a lot has to be left out. He shows not the obvious moments but the ones that resonate for one reason or another. My companion remarked afterward that every audience member is likely to identify strongly with a few of the vignettes in the play, which I think is one of the secrets to its success. Some of these scenes are remarkably moving.
I've been saving the best for last in this review; sturdy and finely crafted as Uhry's play is, it is nothing without strong players to bring it to life. There are just the three roles, and Bernstein, Esbjornson, and company have not stinted. Boyd Gaines, the only man ever to win four Tony Awards for acting, plays Boolie, and he gives the piece a firm grounding in this important though small and non-showy role. Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, two of the most celebrated living actors in the world, take the main parts of Miss Daisy and Hoke. How are they? Well, Redgrave is radiant, luminous; so much so that until the very end it's hard to believe that her character is a septua- and then octo-genarian. But she's built this harsh, stern, difficult, self-reliant woman from the inside out, and we understand why she is the way she is and why people like Hoke and Boolie put up with her and why they are frequently exasperated by her.
Jones gives a performance that I'd classify as one of the ten or so best I've ever seen in the theatre. Hoke is in his blood, it seems, and he reveals this man with respect and compassion and a deep understanding that helps us appreciate not just his place in the play but the place of men like Hoke in our country's history. His Hoke is certainly funny, wise, and canny; but he's so much more than that! Moments when Hoke feels Miss Daisy's thoughtless bigotry are galvanizing. Moments when he exposes himself, out from behind a pose of subservience that's second nature to him, are wrenching. He gets Hoke's dialect exactly right, to my ear, and also his posture and walk, which slows ever so gradually as time passes and Hoke becomes an octogenarian himself. It's a privilege to see this fine, fine actor at work.
Driving Miss Daisy explores how younger people treat older people in America and how whites treat (or used to treat) blacks. Fundamentally, though, it's about the evolution of a friendship—a grudging and unorthodox one, unsentimentally examined. It's magnificently humane, which is why I liked it so much and why it's perhaps a little out of place on Broadway in 2010.
It's a play that lifts its audience up, thanks to its understated message and the magisterial work of its stars. I'm so glad I saw it.