Culturally speaking, "Driving Miss Daisy" can be a bit of a touchy subject. Because race is front and center in this story of an elderly, wealthy Southern Jewish woman and her patient black chauffeur, this otherwise wispy two-hander-plus-one could easily collapse under a sociopolitical weight it isn't all that interested in lifting in the first place. And so it's no surprise that the play has returned very much as a star vehicle for old-pro actors.
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for drama -- and immediately made into a Best Picture-winning 1989 film -- Alfred Uhry's play "Driving Miss Daisy" was originally produced off-Broadway in 1987 before at last enjoying a Broadway run with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines in 2010. Last year, that same production -- with Angela Lansbury replacing Redgrave -- toured Australia, where it was "captured for cinema." A partnership between Screenvision and the newly formed Broadway Near You brings this Stagecast to movie theaters this week.
Lansbury plays imperious Atlantan widower Mrs. Daisy Werthan, a retired fifth-grade English teacher who makes life difficult for her son Boolie (a stalwart Gaines). When the play opens, Daisy is 72, and a car accident has rendered her all but uninsurable. Boolie's solution is to hire driver Hoke Colburn (Jones). Himself no spring chicken, Hoke immediately proves savvy in his people skills and, crucially, at maneuvering around white folks. But his ultimate test will be "Miss Daisy," who's resistant partly out of prideful denial of her advancing age, partly in fear of the familiarity and intrusion this black man would seem to represent.
In sketches spanning from 1948 to 1973, the play depicts Hoke's slow breakdown of Daisy's latent racism and her walls of self-defense to reach detente and something like an arranged marriage. There resides the play's nominal tension: How close can these two come to making a soulful connection as something like equals? There's no mistaking "Driving Miss Daisy" as anything but a lean play, and its comfort zone is almost sit-comedic, coming to life most often in the odd-couple back-and-forths between Daisy and Hoke. As a white man, Uhry accepts the limitation of his perspective, telling the story from the privileged perspective of the Werthans.
Being the great actor that he is, Jones takes this as a proper challenge, imbuing his character with his well-known booming voice but also with subtleties of conflicted feelings. His Hoke is clearly a moral man, but also one who has chosen optimism not only as a survival tactic for being around white folks but for living life. Jones' genius is in occasionally cluing us in that it's not a one-time choice, but one that he must make over and over again, and not easily.
Lansbury's performance may be a bit broader, but it's no less satisfying, from the verbal railroading that establishes Daisy to her reactions to benign attacks on her equilibrium and, eventually, her physical and mental diminution. The old Dame has impeccable comic timing and control of her instrument, and there's a beautiful refinement to how she delineates Daisy's softening, for better and worse, into second childishness.
Esbjornson's production skillfully moves from scene to scene while providing a bit of scale to the staging. Five cameras unobtrusively capture it all. Here's a terrific gift for American theater lovers who can't just hop a plane to Melbourne to see the 87-year-old Lansbury play Miss Daisy opposite the 82-year-old Jones: For a fraction of a Broadway ticket price, Broadway Near You offers front-row seats.
The production screens at both Century 20 in Redwood City and Century 16 in Mountain View on Tuesday, June 10 at 7 p.m.; It plays at the Aquarius theater in Palo Alto on Sunday, June 8, at 11 a.m.
Not rated. One hour, 26 minutes.