Culturally speaking, Driving Miss Daisy can be a bit of a touchy subject. Because race is front and center in this story of a elderly, wealthy Southern Jewish woman and her patient black chauffeur, this otherwise wispy two-hander-plus-one could easily collapse under a sociopolitical weight it isn't all that interested in lifting in the first place. And so it's no surprise that the play has returned very much as a star vehicle, with old-pro actors bringing their own loveable personalities to bear on the simple, sweet (or is that too simple, and bittersweet?) story.
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama—and immediately made into a Best Picture-winning 1989 film—Alfred Uhry's play Driving Miss Daisy had never graced a Broadway stage until four years ago. Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1987, the play enjoyed a 2010 revival with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and Boyd Gaines. Last year, that same production—with Angela Lansbury replacing Redgrave—toured Australia, where it was "captured for cinema" at Melbourne's Comedy Theatre. A partnership between Screenvision and the newly formed Broadway Near You is bringing this Stagecast™ to movie theaters June 4-10 (check your local listings via www.broadwayonscreen.com).
Lansbury plays imperious Atlantan widower Mrs. Daisy Werthan, a retired fifth-grade English teacher who spends her days making life difficult for her son Boolie (a stalwart Gaines) and her never-glimpsed black maid Idella. When the play opens, in 1948, Daisy is 72, and a car accident has rendered her all but uninsurable. Boolie's solution is to hire Hoke Colburn (Jones), the longtime driver for a local judge. Himself no spring chicken, Hoke immediately proves in his job interview that he's savvy in his people skills and, crucially, at manuevering around white folks. But his ultimate test will be the woman he calls "Miss" Daisy, who initially refuses the services of this man her son has installed in her house: partly in prideful denial of her advancing age, partly in fear of the familiarity and intrusion Hoke would seem to represent ("Idella is different...we know how to stay out of each other's way").
In sketches spanning from 1948 to 1973, the play depicts Hoke's slow breakdown of Daisy's latent racism and her walls of self-defense to reach detente and eventually something like the awkward comfort of a lived-in arranged marriage, but all intractably informed by racial, class, and cultural divides that may never be fully overcome for the two (also fueling the illusion of Daisy's superiority: Hoke is illiterate, prompting her inner schoolteacher to re-emerge). There resides the play's nominal tension: how close can these two come to making a soulful connection as something like equals?
There's no mistaking Driving Miss Daisy as anything but a lean play—the Stagecast™ runs eighty-six minutes, counting credits—and its comfort zone is almost sitcomedic, coming to life most often in the odd-couple back-and-forths between Daisy and Hoke. As a white man, Uhry accepts the limitation of his perspective, telling the story from the privileged perspective of the Werthans (we never see Hoke on his own turf, but rather always on the job).
Being the great actor that he is, Jones takes this as a proper challenge, imbuing his character with his well-known booming voice (which has its place here) but also with subtleties of conflicted feelings that make the play at least a hint more complex. His Hoke is clearly a moral man (the script makes that clear in a setup-punchline episode involving tinned salmon), but also one who has chosen optimism not only as a survival tactic for being around white folks but for living life. Jones' genius is in occasionally clueing us in that it's not a one-time choice, but one that he must make over and over again, and not easily. We see glimmers of the darkness underneath that he willfully banishes with his lightness of spirit. In Jones' performance, it's easy to see Hoke as the active protagonist, a man who has taken a job that he chooses to treat less as an endurance test than as a project of personal interest.
Lansbury's performance may be a bit broader, but it's no less satisfying. She handles the part with ease, from the verbal railroading that establishes Daisy to her reactions to each in a series of benign attacks on her equilibrium and, eventually, her physical and mental diminution. The old Dame has impeccable comic timing and control of her instrument, and there's a beautiful refinement to how she delineates Daisy's softening, for better and worse, into second childishness. It's to the play's credit that the skies never open up and send down a social deus ex machina (though the story does pass through 1963, and director David Esbjornson doesn't let us forget it); rather, the play ends on a poetic "close-up," a humble victory.
Esbjornson's production skillfully moves from scene to scene while providing a bit of scale to the staging with a high-walled living room set that accomodates projections (most notably—and unnecessarily—civil rights footage) and, when plunged into darkness, allows for Boolie's office and the signature driving scenes (on a nifty little revolve). Under the video direction of Peter Ots, five cameras capture it all in a manner that happily draws little attention to itself—such "Stagecast™"s take a little getting used to as we mentally adjust for the larger-than-cinematic performances, but they're a terrific gift for American theater lovers who can't just hop a plane to Melbourne to see the 87-year-old Lansbury play Miss Daisy opposite the 82-year-old Jones, or make regular trips to London to see the latest production of the National Theatre, or even get out to Broadway: for a fraction of a Broadway ticket price, Broadway Near You offers front-row seats.
[Ticket buyers, take note! The Driving Miss Daisy Stagecast™ will be accompanied by a Q&A with Lansbury conducted by the British Film Institute. Lansbury discusses the origins of her Atlanta accent, how she became involved in the play, and her feelings about stage plays being shown in cinemas.]