Driving Miss Daisy -- Theater Review

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones bring significant star power to this revival of Uhry's perfectly calibrated comic drama.

NEW YORK -- It won a Pulitzer and a best picture Academy Award for its film version, but "Driving Miss Daisy" inexplicably never has been produced on Broadway.

That's clearly an opportunity not to be missed by canny producers, not when it's such a beloved property and scene-stealing showcase for older actors -- thus the new Broadway production co-starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, with four-time Tony winner Boyd Gaines thrown in for extra insurance. The results are box-office catnip, with the production already racking up hefty weekly grosses.

The surprising aspect of Alfred Uhry's work is that it's such a deceptively simple creation. Running 90 minutes and featuring three characters and a single set, it subtly depicts over many brief scenes spanning about 25 years the slowly evolving friendship between an elderly Southern Jewish white woman and the black man hired to be her chauffeur. Set during the 1950s and '60s in Atlanta, it can be viewed as a microcosm of the Civil Rights movement that dominated the era.

But what audiences mostly respond to are the wonderfully rich characters: The proud and flinty Daisy Werthan, the endlessly polite but richly self-assured Hoke Coleburn and Daisy's exasperated but loving son Boolie.

The play is a pretty well-indestructible audience-pleasing vehicle, and director David Esbjornson's production, only slightly more elaborate than the bare-bones 1987 off-Broadway original, does nothing to tamper with it.

That being said, it should be pointed out the casting is somewhat problematic, especially for those with strong memories of Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman in the original stage production and Freeman and the Oscar-winning Jessica Tandy in the film.

Redgrave certainly is perfectly suited to portray Daisy's steely self-determination and willful stubbornness, but the still physically imposing actress far less credibly conveys the fragility and vulnerability that afflict the character as the years pass, and her Southern accent has a way of coming and going.

Jones, too, seems a little off. His Hoke is much less initially courtly and deferential than Freeman's, displaying a self-assured bluster from the beginning. The result is that there is less dramatic impact in pivotal scenes like when Hoke, ordered by Miss Daisy to keep driving even though he has to go to the bathroom, finally rebels and asserts his independence.

Still, despite any quibbles, it remains a pleasure to watch these two old pros at work, and Gaines, as usual, is an absolute delight, more than keeping up with his older co-stars.

Already selling out for its limited engagement, this "Daisy," with the proper recasting, could be driving on Broadway for a long time to come.

Venue: Golden Theatre, New York (Through Jan. 29)
Presented by: Jed Bernstein, Adam Zotovich, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Roger Berlind, Beth Kloiber, Albert Nicciolino, Jon B. Platt, Stylesfour Prods., Ruth Hendel/Shawn Emamjomeh, Larry Hirschborn/Spring Sirkin, Carl Moellenberg/Wendy Federman, and Daryl Roth/Jane Bergere in association with Michael Filerman
Cast: James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Boyd Gaines
Playwright: Alfred Uhry
Director: David Esbjornson
Scenic designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Projection designer: Wendall K. Harrington
Music: Mark Bennett