“I think we’re gonna have to have a little talk…”
Once again, I found myself coerced, coerced I tell you, into seeing something I knew I pretty much wouldn’t like, yet unable to resist the allure of accompanying someone who was much more enthusiastic about seeing the play in question. This time, it was Driving Miss Daisy – sold very much as a dual star vehicle for James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave (with Boyd Gaines making up the cast) though Redgrave’s multiple absences throughout the run have ruffled more than a few feathers. One often says that you shouldn’t book for the stars but for the play, but in this case I can understand the frustrations of those who ended up with understudies, even after being told Ms Redgrave would be on when they bought their tickets just an hour before curtain up.
Anyway, I had scratched my itch with both of these actors, having taken in Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking and Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (in which the audience reaction to him drove me buts) so there was no novelty value in seeing them onstage and the play itself held no attraction (I’ve never seen the film) so it hadn’t been a hard decision to steer clear of this. But being the benevolent soul I am, I filled in on plus one duties and tried to keep an open mind to allow myself the possibility of enjoying this.
I did not enjoy it though. At all. Alfred Uhry’s play follows the relationship between rich, elderly, white Jewish Daisy and her African-American chauffeur Hoke as they move from employer/employee to something closer. Over the course of three decades from the 1940s to the 1970s, a friendship grows between the two, impacted by greater societal changes (evoked through a series of projections) but ostensibly more influenced by the personal, including Daisy’s son. But this implies a clear sense of progression in the relationship that never really emerges in these performances.
Instead, in David Esbjornson’s production, there’s a real sense of coasting from the two leads, a broadness to the acting that manifests itself in an uncomfortably hammy atmosphere. James Earl Jones booms his way through with precisely zero charisma or charm, there’s no subtlety evident here at all and it came across as a lazy piece of work to me. Vanessa Redgrave works a little harder but there’s an oddness at work here too, gestures that seem overemphatic and readings of lines that often feel counter-intuitive.
Perhaps it was the perceived sense of having to overcompensate for being in a theatre that essentially too big for the production; perhaps it was my inability to be seduced by the way in which the driving is portrayed; perhaps I was just in a bad mood (I wasn’t!). But over the 90 minutes, I wasn’t convinced I was seeing anything of dramatic substance.