What is the point of complaining that it has taken 23 years for Alfred Uhry’s first play to reach Broadway? It is already locked in the American consciousness first as a fine play that had a successful and very long Off-Broadway run in 1989 with Dana Ivey and Morgan Freeman and then with the subsequent Academy Award-winning 1989 film version that starred Jessica Tandy and Freeman repeating his role. So the pleasure of having two titans of the theater, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, facing off at the John Golden Theater in this lovely play allows another generation of theater-goers to see or recall just how delightful an experience it is.
A refresher of the story: Redgrave plays a cantankerous 72-year-old Southern Jewish woman of failing reflexes but unfailing independence. Jones plays Hoke, a patient, also aging African-American chauffer who, during the course of 25 difficult years of driving Miss Daisy, finally achieves the status of confidant and friend. Boyd Gaines is Boolie, Miss Daisy’s son, a successful Atlanta businessman who first hires Hoke. Boolie shows up periodically to act as impartial referee and go-between.
What makes Uhry’s play so appealing is that both Miss Daisy, whose obstinacy and unalterable opinions seem to intensify rather than modify with age, and Hoke, whose modest dignity allows only for some half-muttered self-defensive retorts, are both 100 percent real and believable human beings. Gaines, whose character is primarily a catalyst between scenes in what is essentially a two-character play, prevents his secondary role from appearing secondary as he brings a generous amount of energy and warmth to his maturing process.
Admittedly, the plot reveals itself more like a diary than a drama. But each absorbing, humor-invested episode — whether it concerns itself with a missing can of salmon, the tutorial influence of Miss Daisy on Hoke’s illiteracy, or the comforting visit to the nursing home where, at the play’s end, Miss Daisy is finally residing at the age of 97 — illuminates the candor and tender affection between two proud people who reach an understanding that speaks quite eloquently for their social status and their inherent humanity.
One would expect a limit to the ways an actress can display growing ineptitude and senility. But Redgrave’s exquisitely detailed and nuanced body language never seems to run out of variations on how to present Miss Daisy. Hers is a totally beguiling performance without a false note that might give away that she wasn’t defined by living in the south. This kind of reality is also reflected in the quietly touching performance of Jones as he achieves his own state of wisdom through necessity. This is not to say that Jones’s awesomely resounding voice doesn’t surface for great effect when the moment and the time is right.
I wish I could say that David Esbjornson has directed with the seamless grace that the play needs to be effective. But he is hampered somewhat by the rather ugly and cumbersome set designed by the usually artistically astute John Lee Beatty. Granted that there are the prerequisite few pieces of furniture including the chairs that serve as a car, but the shadowy projections that are cast upon a wallpapered backdrop look like the effort of a budget-constrained community theater. Even with this visual distraction, “Driving Miss Daisy” is a pleasure from start to finish. ***
“Driving Miss Daisy,” through Saturday, January 29, John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. $65 to $125. 212-239-6200.