Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones could do this show buried up to their necks in a pit and still break your heart.
There are lessons to be learned from this revival of “Driving Miss Daisy,” the 1987 play about the unorthodox friendship between a white Southern lady and her black chauffeur that won a Pulitzer Prize for Alfred Uhry (and an Oscar for Jessica Tandy when she and Morgan Freeman starred in the movie). Lesson No. 1 (duh) is that Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones could do this show buried up to their necks in a pit and still break your heart. Lesson No. 2 has to do with how radically the dynamics change when age-appropriate performers are cast in the roles. Still astonishing at 73, Redgrave has the age as well as the regal stature to play Daisy Werthan, the imperious and extremely vital Jewish matron who is 72 when the play opens in 1948 Atlanta. Holding herself tall and taking long, athletic strides, the statuesque thesp lets us know that this old lady has the physical stamina to support her sharp mind and independent spirit.
As Redgrave works her mastery over Daisy’s body language, that straight spine gradually softens and bends. Over the play’s course of 25 years, the stride shortens, the knees stiffen and the eyes lose their penetrating focus. But as Daisy’s supple mind accepts new ways of thinking about age-old Southern traditions based on class and race, Redgrave finds ways to physicalize the inner strength of her indomitable personality.
When the play opens in 1948, Daisy is still in fighting shape to take on her son, Boolie (played to perfection by Boyd Gaines), who is in a state because his mother has just demolished the brand new Packard he bought her. “It was the car’s fault,” she insists, with a defiant thrust of her chin.
But if Boolie is malleable, the insurance company is not, and Daisy is forced to accept the services of Hoke Coleburn (Jones) as her chauffeur. The veteran thesps immediately find their character chemistry — a combination of curiosity, wariness and stubborn pride — in these early, charming scenes. And by the time their polite hostility gives way to grudging respect and eventual affection, both the public world they live in and the private world they create inside the succession of automobiles Hoke drives for Daisy have spun wildly on their axes.
Jones builds Hoke’s physical character differently from the way Redgrave plays Daisy. Being close to 80, he doesn’t ask his body to hop around and play the spring chicken (relatively speaking) Hoke is supposed to be. Instead, he cannily works off that magnificent voice of his, which is still in remarkably good shape.
Big and booming and mellow as a cello, the resonant voice that bounces off the walls in the early scenes has enough youthful vigor to make Daisy clutch the furniture to keep from being blown away. As Hoke ages, Jones modulates his musical instrument in subtle ways, lowering the pitch, softening the tone, harnessing the sheer force of it, the way Hoke eases up on the gas of those big cars he drives. By the time he’s paying visits to Daisy in a nursing home, he’s speaking in a soft whisper.
Not that there’s any crockery, or even much furniture for Jones’ voice to demolish on John Lee Beatty’s impressionistically spare set of Daisy’s home — the fewer physical impediments to creaky old bones, the better. Still, there’s a pervasively dark and gloomy air to the utilitarian set that doesn’t reflect the seismic changes going on in the life of the play.
In the absence of windows and doors, or more expansive and colorful outdoor scene projections, little light shines on Daisy’s garden. Or, more to the point, on the tumultuous and often violent political events — the angry KKK rallies, the synagogue burnings, the civil rights protests — that are so scrupulously, if delicately, alluded to in the play.
Redgrave and Jones are masters of their craft, and they have the whole house sobbing long before Daisy reaches for Hoke’s hand and calls him her “best friend.” But without a stronger sense of the treacherous social currents that these two proudly independent souls must struggle to navigate whenever they go out together for a spin in Daisy’s latest car, we can’t fully appreciate the depth or profundity of their beautiful friendship.