Friday, February 11, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy @ John Golden Theatre

Taking to the streets of Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s, Driving Miss Daisy tackles the powerful topics of civil rights, parenthood, and friendship. Currently extended through April 9th at the Golden Theatre, Driving Miss Daisy tells a heartwarming tale that boasts movie and theatre greats James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Boyd Gaines. However, even with outstanding performances by these great actors, this is one car that seems to have a flat tire. Unfortunately, Driving Miss Daisy does not ride into one of the great pieces of American theatre.

Driving Miss Daisy tells the story of Daisy Werthan (played by Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly Jewish woman who recently hit the age where it is no longer safe for her to drive her car. Against her will, Boolie Werthan, her son (played by Boyd Gaines), takes it upon himself to hire her a driver. Boolie hires a down on his luck African American man named Hoke Coleburn (played by James Earl Jones). As the seasons and year change, Daisy and Hoke slowly become friends crossing the lines of segregation. As the relationship grows between these two unlikely friends, however, Daisy’s health ultimately begins to fade. This wonderful crafted script from Alfred Uhry (author of other works such as Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo) shows the true power of friendship – it knows no race, religion, or gender.
Outstanding performances shine each night as three of the “greatest” actors of our time bring Uhry’s words to life with style and grace. James Earl Jones (whose distinct voice is known for work in the Star Wars trilogy and The Lion King) plays the witty driver to Daisy, Hoke Coleburn. Jones delivers a light hearted but powerful performance. He represents the true heartaches that faced African Americans during this time – segregation, prejudices, and discrimination. Jones captures these pains and brings them to life through this truly loveable character. Vanessa Redgrave (most recently seen in the film Letters to Juliet) stars as the uptight, but ultimately changed Daisy Werthan. While Redgrave started out a little too stiff and stern, she quickly loosened up and filled the role perfectly. She represents the voice of change in an uptight society. Redgrave shows the struggles of doing what is right versus sticking to the status quo. Playing the part of Daisy’s son, Boolie Werthan, is Boyd Gains (multiple Tony Award winner for roles in such plays as Gypsy and Contact). Gains shines in this role bringing the 1950s and 1960s working business man to life. He brings humor into his role while still showing the ultimate struggle of keeping a business up and running in times of great change and controversy. These three dynamic actors come together to deliver a spectacular performance.
It is in the technical direction that Driving Miss Daisy hits a speed bump. Director David Esbjornson (who previously directed The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) fails to bring the proper style this dramatic piece truly needs. With long awkward pauses that interrupt scenes, actors that are sometimes out of focus, and sloppy scene changes, Esbjornson does not give this play the justice that it truly deserves. Also, poorly designed projections by Wendall K. Harrington (whose credits include Grey Gardens and Ragtime) also made the production awkward to watch. These projections were usually large and extremely hard to see, taking focus away from the actors while the audience struggled to see what was on the back wall. However, these weaknesses in the technical direction were matched with two stunning designs in the set and lighting. The scenic design by John Lee Beatty (who is currently represented on Broadway with Chicago) was minimalistic and original. With only a staircase, a stove, some chairs, and a desk, the locations of each scene left some room for imagination. It truly added a unique element to this production. The lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski (seen on Broadway with Curtains and The Producers) is a truly stunning site. With more lights ththat shows the heart, joy, pain, and laughter of Driving Miss Daisy. These two elements truly save that technical side of this production.

Bringing Driving Miss Daisy to the first time is a remarkable cast, a slightly flawed technical crew, but a truly brilliant script. These elements combine to form an alright night at the theatre. While it may not be the best thing currently playing on Broadway, buying a ticket to see James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Boyd Gains would not be the worst an most musicals, Kaczorowski uses every single one effortlessly to deliver a design decision a person could make.

Review By: James Russo & Ryan Oliveti

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