Thursday, November 4, 2010

Small But Writ Large


Driving Miss Daisy
A play by Alfred Uhry

Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring James Earl Jones, Boyd Gaines, Vanessa Redgrave

Performances through January 29, 2011
John Golden Theater
252 West 45th Street

Driving Miss Daisy might be a small play, but Alfred Uhry’s unerring recreation of a volatile era in American history—which complements his modest character study of two people who are opposites in every way—shows off an unassuming artist with a profound understanding of humanity.

If you never saw the off-Broadway original or Bruce Beresford’s 1989 film adaptation which won the Best Picture Oscar, the Georgia-based story begins in 1948 and concerns Miss Daisy, a 72-year-old, feisty Southern Jewish widow who, after crashing her beloved automobile, is told by her loyal son Boolie that it’s time to stop driving. Boolie hires Hoke, a dependable chauffeur, to drive her around: over a quarter-century, Daisy and Hoke slowly, after much vacillating (especially from the initially inflexible Daisy), gain each other’s trust, respect, and—ultimately—friendship.

These are rare creatures onstage, fully-realized characters filled with the flaws, foibles and contradictions we all share. Rather than condescending to them, Uhry allows their personality traits—Daisy’s stubbornness, Hoke’s deference—to gently collide until we reach their final, touching encounter in a nursing home.

David Esbjornson’s inspired staging doesn’t “enlarge” the play for the bigger Broadway stage. Shrewdly-utilized projections provide an all-important sense of time and place, and a few pieces of furniture stand in for Daisy’s kitchen, Boolie’s office, and the all-important automobile where Daisy and Hoke’s relationship is mainly played out. Comprising a bench and a chair, the car is also a sly nod to the low-tech original, which made a star out of Morgan Freeman.

Esbjornson scores touchdowns with all three actors. Boyd Gaines greatly enlivens the stock part of Boolie with such humaneness and empathy that he nearly equals the two towering stars. Vanessa Redgrave, reining in her natural bloom, draws a radiant portrait of an old woman learning late in life to change her ways instead of obstinately staying in place. James Earl Jones’ booming voice might seem wrong for Hoke, especially following Freeman’s restrained portrayal. But Jones soon makes clear that a boisterous Hoke is an equally valid interpretation, his resonant delivery carrying across years of oppression.

This excellent revival shows that there is room for intelligent plays on Broadway that are bolstered by stars’ actual performances instead of simple name recognition.

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