James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in roles of a lifetime: Driving Miss Daisy

By JJ El-Far

I had the privilege of watching two of the greatest working actors on Monday night in Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy at the Golden Theatre. Both James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave alone could carry their own show, drawing in crowds and filling the house each night. Together, their ability was simply magnetic.

In a special tribute performance for Corin and Lynn Redgrave, these two luminaries retold the powerful story of an elderly Jewish woman and her African American driver in Georgia during the years leading up to the civil rights movement. Organized by The Actor’s Fund, the performance was donated on what is typically a dark night in the theater, and filled with industry professionals as well as theater supporters. The actors selflessly turned in remarkable performances for an audience of their peers with the same commitment and fortitude that draws in audiences night after night.

I was looking forward to the event all week. I brought my friend, actor, and director, Tony White as my guest to the show. As avid theater goers, Tony and I were both excited to see these two theater heroes on stage. We were lucky enough to be sitting in the orchestra, and from the moment Redgrave and Jones entered the stage everyone was utterly mesmerized.

For those familiar with the movie made into a play, Driving Miss Daisy, you can expect to find the character Hoke played very differently by James Earl Jones than the interpretation portrayed by Morgan Freeman on the big screen. Where Freeman is proud and steadfast, Jones shuffles around and stutters in a lowly and unassuming way. Redgrave fills her character with the piss and vinegar of a woman half her age. It is a kind of regal grace that renders Jessica Tandy’s version of Miss Daisy somehow tame. The two actors have a slightly different dynamic than Tandy and Freeman as well. Whereas in the movie Freeman posed a potential physical strength to balance out Tandy’s frail circumstantial dominance, in the stage production Jones expressed more of his age in his body and appeared more evenly matched with Redgrave’s vigor.

I was struck by the simplicity of the production. There were no fancy sets or special effects. Simple projections of windowpanes informed the audience of the setting and time of day. Photographs, dates, and video projected on the upstage wall provided context of the location and helped create a historical timeline throughout the course of the play, which spans roughly 40 years. The car scenes were done with little more than a couple of benches and a free rolling steering wheel on a stand. Clearly director, David Esbjornson did not want to detract from the actors’ performances.

Many people are familiar with this story and the pivotal scenes, like when Hoke tells Miss Daisy that he needs to “make water,” garnered a round of applause from the audience. Alfred Uhry creates two compelling characters whose interactions are inherently dramatic because of the vast differences that separate them. This is a story about a white woman and a black man who become friends, and learn about the world through each other’s eyes during one of the most contentious periods of racial relations in American history.

However, as I watched the final scene of a nearly blind Hoke feeding a toothless Daisy, I remembered why this play is so unique. This is a story about people getting old. As we watch their relationship develop and the times change around them, Redgrave and Jones find detailed and subtle ways to express their characters aging throughout the play. Bit by bit, we watch these people that we grow to know and love, go from old, to older, to elderly. The inevitability of human aging parallels the journey towards self-understanding and breaking down our barriers that separate us from others.

Driving Miss Daisy, by Alfred Uhry, Directed by David Esbjornson, starring James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Boyd Gaines plays at the Golden Theatre through April 9th. For tickets call (212) 239-6200, or visit www.telecharge.com

For more information visit: www.daisyonbroadway.com