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Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy"
“Broadway on Screen”, by arrangement with “Broadway Near You”, the very promising new series of theatrical events captured in live performances, is easily the most exciting news in decades for theater buffs. Its first production is the 2013 Australian version of the beloved play “Driving Miss Daisy” by Alfred Uhry. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama when it was first produced off-Broadway in 1987, the work went on to win the Oscar for Best Film just two years later when it was adapted by Uhry himself (who won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process). Uhry went on to win two Tonys, for his other two Southern works, completing his “Atlanta Trilogy”, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” and the book of the musical “Parade”. He is the only playwright who has been honored with an Oscar, a Tony (twice) and the Pulitzer Prize, but he remains best known for his creation of “Driving Miss Daisy”. It was revived in New York in 2010, then toured throughout Australia in this successful, well-received production.
The story concerns an elderly white Jewish Southern lady, Daisy Werthan (here played by Angela Lansbury), and her relationship with her African-American chauffeur, Hoke Coburn (James Earl Jones), over the period of racial unrest from 1948 to 1973, in Atlanta. Their twenty-five-year bond which developed into an unanticipated deep friendship is one of the theater’s most affectionately remembered tales. Daisy’s son Booley (Boyd Gaines) first arranged for Hoke to drive his mother (most often to the local Piggly Wiggly market), which she initially refused, but came to appreciate when it became clear that they shared much in common, especially their fate as outsiders (as a Jew and a black man) in a predominantly WASP society. In a series of brief evolving scenes, over ninety minutes that seem to fly by, the two marginalized figures mirror the stress and strife of their times. Most theatergoers grew to love this odd couple in their reactions to their changing times, growing pride, and, fundamentally, the empowering friendship that transformed them both. All of this happens at a quiet pace against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, with subtle but strong allusions to segregated toilets, temple burnings, the Klu Klux Klan, and protest marches. As Hoke remarks, “Things changin’, but they ain’t change all dat much”.
The story is familiar to many, but if you think you’ve seen the definitive “Driving Miss Daisy”, think again. Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones are, individually and together, forces of nature to be reckoned with; one would probably enjoy an evening of their reading from a telephone book, never mind an award-winning play. Lansbury, nominated for no fewer than seven Tony awards (and winning five of them, for “Mame”, “Dear World”, “Gypsy”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Blithe Spirit”) is still a wonder. Jones is also an award-winning actor, with four Tony nominations including one for this performance in “Driving Miss Daisy” (winning two of them, for “The Great White Hope” and “Fences”). Gaines, too, is no stranger to awards, having been nominated for five Tonys in his career, in every one of the four acting categories (and winning same for “Gypsy”, “Contact”, “She Loves Me” and “Heidi Chronicles”). Thus it should come as no surprise that this trio of actors comprise what can only be called a dream cast; they may boast of eleven Tonys among them.
Jones is so believable as the gentle but proud Hoke that one quickly becomes unaware that there is anyone else up there but this aging servant, modest but grounded. Gaines is the perfect model of a well-meaning Southern gentleman whose main concern is the welfare of his mother and only regret when given an award is that his father and grandfather weren’t there to share in it. Lansbury, who admits to turning eighty-nine this fall, is astonishing; the beatific smile she gives Jones as the final scene ends is alone worth the price of admission. The chemistry among all three is extraordinarily moving. Director David Esbjornson has modulated the performances so well that the two and a half decades go by seamlessly, aided by the creative team (identical to the 2010 Broadway revival) from the Projection Design by Wendall K. Harrington, to the Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty, the Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, the Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski, and the Sound Design by Christopher Cronin. Only the Music by Mark Bennett sometimes intrudes, as it runs the gamut from an aria from Mozart‘s “Magic Flute” to Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. The production, captured live at a performance at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, is theatre at its finest, lovingly preserved, providing the best seats in the house.
Next up in the “Broadway On Screen” series, later this month at a theater near you, is the irrepressible Nathan Lane in his own Tony-nominated turn, in and as “The Nance”. Rumor hath it that “Twelfth Night” may be on the future schedule as well. Stay tuned.