Friday, November 19, 2010

Theater Review: Driving Miss Daisy with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the Broadway premiere of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize winning "Driving Miss Daisy", now in performances at The Golden Theater (252 W. 45th Street). © Annabel Clark
This Version Gets Steered on a Disappointing Detour
By Lauren Yarger
I always weep with emotion at Driving Miss Daisy, whether I’m reading Alfred Uhry’s wonderful Pultizer-Prize winning play, viewing the movie version (Urhy won the Oscar for his screenplay) or watching it on stage, but after attending the Broadway version, directed by David Esbjornson, I wept with disappointment.

Whether Esbjornson was just trying to do something so different from the norm or whether he couldn’t stand up to interpretations by his star-packed cast of Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines (they have seven Tony awards among them), I’m not sure, but Miss Daisy gets driven right off the road at the Golden Theater in a very disappointing detour that doesn’t do justice to this Rolls Royce of drama.

Jones is Hoke Colburn, who is hired by wealthy businessman Boolie Werthan (Gaines) to chauffeur his elderly mother, the indomitable Miss Daisy (Redgrave), after she no longer is able to drive herself. Daisy resists and at first, won’t give Hoke the time of day, but over time, the two learn to live with each other and eventually the black man and the Jewish woman forge a strong friendship. Uhry’s play is about the development of that friendship and about racial tension, not only between the characters, but in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement (the play is set in Georgia).

Granted, Esbjornson and the cast had their work cut out for them in recreating the piece, especially since most people have seen the Oscar-winning film starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman (reprising the role he originated Off-Broadway) and Dan Akroyd –all perfect—in the roles. Recreating it on stage in the wake of the film’s success is possible, even for those of us who love it, however, as long as the characters and layers of writing come through.

Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut, for example, just finished a very well done run of Daisy that left me as teary-eyed as ever. In this Broadway production, John Lee Beatty’s minimal set (the car is a bench and some chairs with a stand-alone steering wheel) is enhanced by Wendall K Harrington’s projections to provide visuals of locations. Between-scenes music by Marc Bennett is reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s movie score. It’s a nice solution to competing with any thoughts of the film, but the rest of the production seems to veer off just for the sake of going in a different direction.

Jones’ Hoke is more self-assured than we’ve seen before, less fearful of speaking truth around the white folks. He makes it believable, though and he gives a nice new interpretation to some of Hoke’s lines and actions. Gaines, however, gives us none of Boolie’s depth. He’s perky, but doesn’t show the layers that normally give the character a full scope of appreciation for the complexities of Hoke and his mother as well as the ability to banter with them.

Redgrave fails to capture Daisy on any level and seems to just be reciting lines. There’s no bounce between her and Hoke. One of the play’s most telling moments -- when Daisy tells Hoke that he is her best friend -- sounds like a line being said as a page of script is turning instead of being the deep revelation it’s supposed to be. It’s not only a defining moment in the friendship, but helps conclude the play’s racial relations theme, and it’s completely lost here.

Then things get worse. Redgrave ages Daisy suddenly (though this should have been happening gradually throughout for all the characters and doesn't) and gums her final lines as though she’s forgotten to put in her dentures. The audience starts to giggle. When the play’s most dramatic moment comes (the pie scene, for aficionados), Jones plays it for a laugh – and gets it.

Imagine, if you will, the audience bursting out in laughter when Juliet stabs herself over Romeo’s body, or when Helen Keller says “wa wa,” or when Sydney Carton heads to the guillotine and you’ll have some understanding of how this detour of Daisy smacks head-on into a roadblock and finds itself at a dead end -- literally.

It’s really a shame. It’s such a great play. They’re all such great actors. It should have been a smooth ride, but instead, I felt like I’d been run over – by disappointment.

Daisy plays an extended engagement through April 9 at the Golden, 252 West 45th St., NYC. Discounted tickets are available through Masterwork Productions by clicking here.

Christians might also like to know:
• God’s name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

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All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

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The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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