Driving Miss Daisy

Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby
Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. Photo: Jeff Busby

Theatre Royal, March 2, 2013

Remember being charmed in the theatre? It seems so long ago it is almost revolutionary to encounter it again. Driving Miss Daisy may fall within the narrow confines of naturalism, which I usually disdain, but  Alfred Uhry’s story of evolving race relations in the southern US state of Georgia during the ’50s and ’60s is poignant, gentle and timeless. It tells of Boolie Werthan (Boyd Gaines) hiring Hoke Coleburn (James Earl Jones) to chauffeur his aging, widowed mother, Daisy (Angela Lansbury). The casting and David Esbjornson’s unerringly deft production compound the charm.

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby
Photo: Jeff Busby.

There is no substitute for experience, and the decades of strong work clocked up by Lansbury and Jones result in seemingly effortless and completely seamless performances. There are no cracks in the characterisations or in the flow of the relationship as it grows from stiff formality – especially on the suspicious Miss Daisy’s part – to mutual support. By the time it reaches firm friendship Miss Daisy’s pouts have wilted from having Jones’s Hoke pour that bronze voice of his into her ears across the decades. The ease of their work – the absence of mannerisms and self-consciousness such as marred the current Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at Belvoir Street – draws the audience into their world, and lets their world spill off the stage into ours. But it is their warmth that makes this work as a piece of theatre just as well as it did in its marvellous screen adaptation. We love them both as actors and as characters.

James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby
Jones and Boyd Gaines. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Uhry was too shrewd to ever have his characters mount on soapboxes and preach to us. Hoke recounts a hanging by white supremacists he saw when a boy, and we grieve for him, just as we feel Miss Daisy’s eyes being opened a little to the world from which she has been comfortably shielded. She has also chosen not to look, so it comes as a baffling surprise to her when the same foreigner-hating, minority-hating mentality results in her synagogue being burned. She grows as a person from pinched self-obsession and tacit racism to the point where she finds the one black man in her life has become her best friend.

Gaines’ performance slides into this rapport without ruffling a feather of it. He, too, is likable as the caring but put-upon son who lacks the courage to risk his business associations by attending a Martin Luther King function. Yet he has an inherent generosity of spirit to match Hoke’s brimming magnanimity.

Angela Lansbury in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby
Photo: Jeff Busby.

Unlike the new wave of Australian directors David Esbjornson receives no star billing. This is despite a pedigree that has seen him direct the Broadway premiers of Driving Miss Daisy, The Goat Or Who Is Sylvia and Angels In America: Millennium Approaches, among others. He lets his work do the talking. Talking, not shouting. After seeing so many productions of late where the director is desperate to draw attention to his or her work, here was a director who tried to make his work invisible. Nothing jarred or clanged as Esbjornson simply made room for the charm, graciousness and poignancy to unfold.  He is blessedly beyond the juvenile ego issues besetting so many locals who feel the need to impose themselves on the work.

Similarly John Lee Beatty’s design throws the focus back on the actors. The “car” in which Hoke chauffeurs Miss Daisy around in is just a garden bench and two chairs set on a little revolve facing a steering wheel. The revolve is used economically, and Wendall Harrington’s projections are employed like establishing shots in a movie. Photographs from the civil rights movement are also projected, but as an emphasis rather than a sledgehammer. Mark Bennett brings a witty use of incidental music to bear, and Christopher Cronin’s sound design is so sophisticated that I was still wondering if the actors really were miked up deep into the show.

Finally John Frost should be acknowledged for assembling this fine production and bringing it here. The good seats are an eye-watering $200 a pop, which may make it the most expensive one-act play in history, but those who can afford it will not be questioning whether they enjoyed it. A great night at the theatre it is not, but a very good, wonderfully heart-warming and beautifully acted one it most certainly is.