New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Driving Miss Daisy"
Golden Theater (Broadway), Manhattan

That upper-class Jewish matriarch of Atlanta, Georgia, has once more returned to Broadway. We’re talking about Miss Daisy of Albert Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” the perennial favorite which has now become a classic.

And this time around the play features two super-stars—Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. And the fine actor Boyd Gaines fills a supporting role as Miss Daisy’s son.

It is ironic to think of Miss Redgrave playing a Jewish character. She fell into disfavor some years ago with the Jewish community when she gave strong support to the Palestinians, while patently ignoring the Israelis. While it was all talk, and no action, as far as we know, it was enough to bring the icon down from her pedestal—at least with Jewish audiences generally.

And now Vanessa Redgrave turns Jewish—on stage, that is. The result, as it turns out, is a resounding failure. Could it be that her heart is not in the role? When one thinks of Jessica Tandy and other capable players who have portrayed Miss Daisy, one sees how far off the mark this performance is.

Though other critics (among them, the New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley) have praised her performance, we totally disagree. In our view, she sleepwalks through the part. She just does not GIVE. Long before Miss Daisy lands in a nursing home, she appears to be in a coma. This is not “Driving Miss Daisy,” but “March of the Zombies.”

James Earl Jones, certainly a towering figure in the theater world, is hardly better than Redgrave. Though he gets the body language just right, his lines are lost. Not a single word can be understood. Whether this is an unfortunate attempt to emulate Atlanta accents or an inability to project, it is hard to say.

In any event, the entire effort to bring the story to life rests on Boyd Gaines’ slim shoulders. Fortunately, he is top-notch and well worth watching.

The story, for those who have never encountered “Driving Miss Daisy,” deals with a proud, independent elderly woman. She is no longer capable of driving, and her son Boolie insists that she have a chauffeur. Despite her protests, he hires Hoke, a black man in need of a job. While the two get off to a rocky start, they move into a deep friendship as the years pass. And ultimately the story packs a strong, emotional wallop—and a very human response to racism.

The play itself still resonates. Playwright Uhry had offered, for the first time, a glimpse into the life, values, and culture of Atlanta’s Jewish community. Later, he would  carry this study into greater depth in “Last Night at Ballyhoo.” For this reviewer, Uhry’s plays offered new insights into an unknown southern Jewish world. And for this, we are deeply grateful.

--Irene Backalenick
Oct. 28, 2010

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