Southern ladies would approve of the gentility that infuses the Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy, currently in performances at the Golden Theater. Starring stage and screen legends Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, with Boyd Gaines rounding off the cast as Daisy’s son Boolie, the Pulitzer-Prize winning drama by Alfred Uhry is given an understated, mild-mannered production that would pass muster by any group of women at a tea party.
It is with regret that I state that this gentility is not always an asset to this production. David Esbiornson’s direction is too soft at times, lessening the impact of this ultimately powerful story of racism in the South before and during the Civil Rights movement. Miss Daisy, played with stately elegance by Redgrave, is unable to drive after crashing her new car into her neighbor’s garage, and her son Boolie hires Hoke Coleburn (Jones) to drive her. Daisy, clinging to her privacy and pride, resents Hoke’s presence in her home and refuses his assistance at first. Eventually, she permits him to take her to the grocery store, eventually resulting in a friendship that spans several decades and the Civil Rights movement.
Driving Miss Dasiy was first performed Off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizons in 1987 and was adapted into a 1989 movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture. In its Broadway debut, its edges seemed to have softened with time, and the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, which is the core of the show, seems inevitable from the moment the two meet each other. Instead of clashing and eventually learning to care for each other, the two seem resigned to each other from their first encounter. Daisy and Hoke have a great deal in common – they are both minorities, her being Jewish and him being black, they both cling fiercely to their pride despite what is happening in the world, and they both are reticent to vocalize their emotions. But these similarities and their inevitable friendship seem too easy to access.
Another challenge in the production comes from the staging. The stage of the Golden Theater appears quite empty throughout the production, with only a staircase, a table a desk and a few chairs to fill the space. The scenes in the car are represented by chairs and a steering wheel that turn about on the stage. While Redgrave and Jones are both large stage presences, even they cannot fill this space.
Driving Miss Daisy consists of a series of sketches, the majority of them taking place in Daisy’s home or the car. The dialogue refers to the ongoing Civil Rights movement, but the audience only sees those occurrences when videos or photos are played in the background, illustrating signs that read “This is KKK Country” or Martin Luther King Jr. Daisy’s own thoughts on the Civil Rights movement, as well as her son’s, are revealed throughout the show but it is Hoke’s response to Daisy’s thoughts that are the most moving conversations. As Hoke, Jones appears too over-the-top at first, emphasizing Hoke’s attitude around white people, but his responses when he feels insulted or patronized by Daisy introduce the audience to Hoke’s darker side and hint at the racism he has endured throughout his life.
As Daisy, Redgrave gives an impeccable performance, packed with humor, dignity and restraint. Her rigid posture, prim refusal to discuss money and denial of anti-Semitism in the South all contain an undercurrent of the sadness and loneliness this Jewish widow suffers from. As her son, Gaines is a bit too widely drawn, but in the scene where he explains to his mother of why he won’t attend a Civil Rights dinner is a moment of sheer perfection in the theater – tormented, guilty but not overwrought.
As the characters age, and Daisy’s mind and memory begin to suffer, she tells Hoke that he is her best friend. That moment, presented quietly and sadly, is when the gentility does the show justice.