Driving Miss Daisy

Theatre Royal, Sydney, March 2

ALFRED Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy is a wisp of a play with matters of great substance at its heart. Boolie Werthan (Boyd Gaines) thinks his mother Daisy is no longer capable of driving safely and against her will hires Hoke Coleburn as her chauffeur. The year is 1948 and the place the American South. Daisy (Angela Lansbury) is Jewish, Hoke (James Earl Jones) is what in those days was called a Negro, when not being called something more highly charged. And Daisy is 72, and seeing the first intimations of decline.

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. Photo: Jeff Busby

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. Photo: Jeff Busby

Race, religion, political upheaval, loss of independence: there’s the basis for a mighty tough and angry play. First staged in 1987 and revived on Broadway in 2010 with Vanessa Redgrave, Jones and Gaines, Driving Miss Daisy is, of course, not that play. It puts into the background the conflict and enormous pain of the civil rights era in the US and resolutely fixes on a small, domestic sliver of life, comforting rather than confronting as it races through two decades of tumultuous American history.

It comes as a bit of a jolt, in fact, to see scenes from civic rights marches projected on to the back wall of John Lee Beatty’s fluid, economical set design. The images seem to suggest that director David Esbjornson thinks the gossamer delicacy of the surface needs a bit of reinforcing underneath.  Not really, not with the performances the play’s getting.

Besides which, Driving Miss Daisy is actually quite sturdily built. Uhry expertly sets up laughs and tears, knows a good exit line and doesn’t entirely avoid sentimentality. He’s a brisk operator too – we positively scamper through history in a no-interval evening lasting barely 80 minutes. In short, Uhry has written a thoroughly accessible play. There’s no shame in that, particularly as it has proved so enticing to actors of rare grace and eloquence.

In Lansbury, Jones and Gaines, multiple Tony Award winners all, Driving Miss Daisy has a Rolls-Royce cast. Their control of emotional nuance, timing and phrasing is exquisite; the kind of virtuosity that draws no attention to itself but simply is. As Daisy becomes more bent physically, she unbends to Hoke. Hoke, in turn, can allow himself to speak a little more freely to Daisy than he would be able to do publicly. Lansbury and Jones play the undercurrents with enormous skill and are both greatly touching.

That Lansbury and Jones are in their 80s inevitably colours how one sees the production. As the play comes to its conclusion the actors are playing characters close to their own ages, and the final image is extraordinarily poignant. Sometimes in the theatre all you can do is sit back in awe, wonder and gratitude, then rise to your feet.

Theatre Royal, Sydney, until March 31. Melbourne, April 5-May 12, Adelaide, May 17-June 2. Perth, June 8-16.

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