Originally produced off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1987 and later turned into an Oscar winning film, Uhry’s play follows the relationship between a widowed southern Jew and her African-American driver in Atlanta between 1948 and 1973. After wrecking a weeks-old new car, Daisy’s son, Boolie (played perfectly by four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines) is determined to hire a driver for her despite Miss Daisy’s protestations. What starts out as a tumultuous relationship ends up becoming a long and deep personal relationship between these two characters from different stations in life.
Mr. Esbjornson has staged the opening of the show ingeniously, allowing both of the play’s stars to enter from opposite sides of the stage simultaneously (despite the fact that they are not in the first scene together). Bringing both stars out at the same time allows the audience to get its natural urge to applaud out of the way at a convenient time. Holk takes his place down left on a bench; Miss Daisy enters down right and begins a telephone conversation with her son. As the lights come up on the two of them, the sheets that have been covering the furniture slide away as if by magic.
As Daisy argues over hiring a driver, Ms. Redgrave made the decision to literally have her character making batter on stage; she breaks the eggs, pours in the flour, beats the batter and pours it into a pan and puts it in the oven. Ms. Redgrave fully embodies this character. You find yourself feeling for her son as he tries to do what’s best for her even while the spit-fire Daisy holds her ground. Mr. Jones’s Holk is compassionate, patient and funny as he rides out Miss Daisy’s resistance to his presence. To be able to watch these two actors as they grow older through the 90 minutes is such a privilege; they feel so real it’s like you are invading their privacy by being there.
When I first walked into the theatre, the set by John Lee Beatty seemed as though it was missing something. There was a free-standing staircase center stage, a few items indicating a kitchen down right, a desk with a chair up left of center and a bench down left. There were flats as walls that were stippled with paint to give them texture. It wasn’t until the lighting of Peter Kaczorowski and the projections of Wendall K. Harrington were added that the set was complete. This is an exceptional examples of collaboration between a projection designer, a lighting designer and a set designer. Beatty’s textured walls were a perfect canvas for Harrington’s projections giving them a three dimensionality. Actual video from the time of civil rights demonstrations help establish the time and place of this play. The projections were used to great effect to recreate a darkened roadside or moving car.
Ms. Redgrave’s physical metamorphoses from sassy older woman to stroke-addled nursing home patient is a self-contained acting master-class. While there are plenty of laughs in Driving Miss Daisy, there are also tender moments as well. When Miss Daisy takes Holk by the hand and tells him that he is her best friend, I know I wasn’t the only one in the theatre with tears in my eyes. I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear in a Broadway theatre.
As the first act of the 2010-11 Broadway season comes to an end, I can say without a doubt that Driving Miss Daisy was my favorite 90 minutes in the theatre this fall. Well, perhaps it has to share that with the Roundabout’s Brief Encounter.