Driving Miss Daisy is a story about the complex relationship between an elderly Jewish woman and the chauffeur imposed on her by her son to look after her. Although they start in fairly tempestuous fashion, over the years they spend together they come to rely on each other for more than just the physical needs of money and a means of popping down to the Piggly Wiggly.
Written by Uhry in 1987 it was hugely successful on Broadway and was quickly adapted into a motion picture where it took on even more success, in no small part thanks to the contribution by a certain Morgan Freeman. I don’t know, you may have heard of him… The story of companionship, trust, humour and love has gone down as one of the great stories of the century and rightly so. Here, after a hugely successful stint on Broadway and ahead of a National US Tour, the West End stage is graced by the presence of theatrical royalty showing the rest of us how it’s done.
Straight to the quick of it: James Earl Jones is the main attraction of this production (aside from being both Mufasa and Darth Vader he has won over sixteen – yes, sixteen – awards for his acting in America as well as being honoured with a series of Lifetime Achievement Awards). Often when you hear stories of a ‘brilliant’ actor you take them with a pinch of salt or go in with such high expectations that you can’t avoid being let down. Not so with James Earl Jones. Esbjornson understands the presence that he brings to the stage and from the opening where he just sits waiting while Gaines and Lee had a kerfuffle on the other side of the stage he is the center of attention. His performance was faultless. That’s right, after having said that you must take such statements with a pinch of salt I’m saying he was faultless. Not only was he faultless he was powerful and compelling, funny and moving from moment to moment.
The passage of time during the events of the play are taken naturally in his stride and the humour in the script seems as if it’s all his own. He was as naturally Hoke Colburn as Hoke Colburn could be himself, if he was a real person for more than the hour and a half we’re given.
Vanessa Redgrave was lamentably indisposed when I had the good fortune of securing a front row seat and her understudy, Jenny Lee, stepped into the role admirably, though perhaps the transfer wasn’t as seamless as it could have been. A few times she cut off others’ lines with her own and although her performance was otherwise brilliant these slips were unmistakable. Her relationships with both her comrades were nuanced and natural and she really brought a the underlying emotions of the play to vibrant life on stage with a mixture of drama and humour that endeared you to her as much as it frustrated you at times.
Boyd Gaines is also undeniably outstanding. His history speaks for itself but on the stage here he once again proves himself. Transforming more from beginning to end he takes physical changes and implements subtle changes in his physical acting as well, better illustrating the amount of years that are passing. He characterises the position of the caring son very well indeed and also gives a great position to observe the growing relationship between his mother and Hoke.
David Esbjornson’s direction is faultless. The set he uses is simple and with minor and efficiently executed set changes and alterations it becomes a host of different places, the pride of which being forged mainly in the ‘car’ (a bench, a chair and a steering wheel). The poignancy of the script was allowed to play the major role as the production itself is understated and refined.
The one element that stands out is the series of projections that are used throughout the show. Now, I am of the opinion that if you’re using such devices they have to be fully justified and done well. Thankfully, Esbjornson ticks both boxes emphatically. The subtle changes in the projection serve to either change the location slightly or to keep people up to speed with the rapidly passing time by projecting images of influential people such as Martin Luther King Jr. onto the back of the stage so that they don’t interfere at all with the physical world of the play.
The whole show has a sense of the refined calm that you often feel when you walk through your grandparents’ house, and not just because of the period of the drama. The mannerisms and character is the same, the atmostphere being more than the sum of the physical parts and that is thanks to the unity in direction from Esbjornson between actors, set and everything else; a perfect example of the balance that defines good theatre.
The script is magnificent. Regrettably short, it zips through twenty-odd years of relationship in a brief hour and a half, stopping at the roadside occasionally for humour and worry, sadness and tension. It has everything that a good script should and this was evidenced in the cast clearly reveling in their lines.
Overall, Driving Miss Daisy deserves all the plaudits it has received. The list of awards and accolades the cast and script have received in their careers speaks for itself and all come to the fore here. There is nothing but talent on the stage and there is no reason good enough to not go and see it. Now.
Written by Alfred Uhry; Directed by David Esbjornson; At the Wyndham's Theatre; Starring James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Boyd Gaines, Jenny Lee; Runs from 05 October 11 - 17 December 11.
John Ord (12/10/2011)