For all the study, analysis and practice of acting, writing and directing, the distillation of live theatre remains the most elusive of essences to predict, capture or maintain. When it works, it works. And Driving Miss Daisy works. The cast, the script, the technical elements and the direction come together to create a mesmerizing, life-affirming night at the theatre.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the presence of these legendary actors on our shores. Actors of this calibre may drop in to London but they do not tour America so to have them tour five Australian cities is a rare honour indeed. At the end of the day, Frosty the Showman may have his bottom line to consider, but this presentation is surely a labour of love. The box office registers may be ringing, but the applause and cheers in the auditoriums are even louder. Bravo John Frost for your theatrical vision, flair and drive in delivering this gift to Australian audiences.
Many theatregoers will have a vague idea of the scenario of the plot due to the Academy Award-winning 1989 movie. Having written off her last car while backing out of the garage, the cantankerous Miss Daisy Werthan is no longer safe for the streets so her son Boolie hires her a chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn. The relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke survives mistrust and pride to flourish and thrive. Spanning twenty significant years from 1948, the progress of the relationship between the pair mirrors the radical political and social changes sweeping the US at the time. The causes and issues may have a distinctly American flavour, but the Sydney opening night coinciding with Mardi Gras is a reminder that the celebration of differences and the ongoing fight for equality are universal and perennial themes.
Alfred Uhry’s briskly economical book deftly weaves historical moments of significance into the intimately personal tale, all the while treating the intelligence of the audience with full respect. Director David Esbjornson keeps the action flowing in cinematic style, effortlessly engaging the audience in the lives and inner workings of the three characters.
John Lee Beatty’s scenic design is a marvel of attractive simplicity. Furniture glides on and off as required, while the giant, textured walls display Wendall K Harrington’s evocative projections. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design ties in with the design very effectively. If there is one curious decision in the creative process, it is in the costume design of Jane Greenwood. Boolie has changes which reflect the passing seasons and decades, but Daisy remains in her sensible, cornflower blue dress for twenty years. Perhaps this represents the way Boolie remembers her, or perhaps a focus on her fashions would distract from the emotional core of the story. Hoke also has just one costume, but being a uniform this makes more sense.
Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones share their first entrance, which earns a rousing round of applause. To watch these performers in action is to witness a masterclass in acting, each able to convey so much with a look, a sigh, a shrug, a turn, and nary a line of dialogue is wasted.
Lansbury adopts a gentle, wearily bothered characterisation, ensuring that Daisy’s early judgements and fastidious habits are endearing rather than grating. The gradual thawing of Daisy’s affections is beautifully handled, affecting us far more than a traditional passionate romance.
Jones projects Hoke’s jolly bluster as the shield of a private, proud but very caring man. Hoke’s considered demeanor conveys a life of small mercies and joys amongst many battles and hardships.
If there a highlight in the acting strength of each star, it is their work as their characters become older and frailer. Without any external changes in hair and make up, the pair project the humbling weariness of old age from within, achieving a natural realism and adding to the pathos of the final scenes of the play.
Against such heavyweights, it must be noted that the third star of the tour, Boyd Gaines, is no slouch in the acting department himself. The winner of an incredible four Tony Awards, Gaines gives a neatly understated performance, creating a rounded, believable and recognisable character where there could have been the temptation for the role to be played as a blustering buffoon.
The eighty-five minutes of the one-act play fairly fly by as the audience are held spellbound, enthralled and ultimately moved. Do not miss Driving Miss Daisy.
Driving Miss Daisy continues in Sydney until 31 March 2013, before traveling to Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review written for Theatre People 3 March 2013.