Driving Miss Daisy



Driving Miss Daisy

Gordon Frost Organisation

QPAC Playhouse

9th February – 24th February 2013


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


I didn’t get the chance to meet James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury – I’ve been teaching Drama full time for the last couple of weeks and missed a heap of extra-curricular stuff – but I wondered, if I had done, what would I have said? My sister in law got it in one, “Well, you’d ask them, how ARE you? Are you WELL?”


It’s no less than amazing to see 83-year old James Earl Jones in front of us, and 87-year old Angela Lansbury climb an imposing staircase several times during Driving Miss Daisy, which enjoyed its Australian premiere on Saturday night at QPAC’s Playhouse. You know I love an opening night and this one was extra special because we don’t often see the likes of Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones on our stages. For that reason alone, you should book the last remaining tickets of the season. I will not even start on what John Frost has done for the theatre industry in Australia, it’s a long list of accomplishments; suffice to say, we are all a little bit in awe every time Frosty wins and at the same time, not in the least surprised.


Don’t think of the film. This production is gentler, quieter (and there are no continuity issues!); the play glides along at its own comfortable pace, the same pace James Earl Jones sets with his slow and steady steps. His characterisation is such that we don’t get much of THAT voice, instead we get the voice of the coloured man who drives for Miss Daisy and, over time, becomes her best friend. Without going to the exhaustive – and potentially damaging – effort of changing his vocal pitch, James Earl Jones becomes Hoke Coleburn. Because that’s what great actors do. They step out onto the stage (in this case, to a spontaneous round of applause), they play the role, fit the bill, embody the character. Sometimes it’s a surprise to audiences – to find that the actor plays a new role distinct from anything that’s come before – and the more great actors audiences see, the more accustomed they become to this phenomenon we call “acting”. I can’t stress enough how natural these performances are. Nothing is in earnest unless the situation calls for earnestness from the character. These are completely genuine, truthful performances. Of course we expect nothing less from this calibre of actors but even so, it’s a pleasant surprise to sit and receive the goods. A masterclass in subtlety, these performances are among the best you’ll see in a lifetime.


James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby

James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Image by Jeff Busby


Another multi award winner, Boyd Gaines, who played the same role, Miss Daisy’s son, Jewish businessman Boolie, opposite James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway, fits this production perfectly, his character offering the voice of reason and defeat in conversations with his mother. It is he who hires Hoke, insisting that his mother, Daisy, is no longer fit to drive. Gaines balances heightened emotion carefully with real, raw dismay, and the manipulation and acceptance of his mother.


Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Image by Jeff Busby.


Miss Daisy was born, she tells us, in 1876. That was eleven years after the end of the American Civil War and a year after a Civil Rights bill had been enacted in the United States Congress. Under this, everyone, regardless of colour, was guaranteed equal treatment in “public accommodations”, including theatres, restaurants, schools, transport and restrooms… Yet it was almost a century before the Civil Rights Movement with which most people are familiar really made a difference to people’s lives.


Alfred Uhry has cunningly illustrated that long journey by putting on stage two unforgettable characters from different sides of the race divide who are nevertheless, in some ways, alike. Both are sharp, opinionated, demanding respect, clinging to dignity but lacking control in their lives, Hoke because he is poor and black, Daisy because she is growing old.

Source: Program Notes


Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby

Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Image by Jeff Busby.


Daisy Werthan is the 90-year old that, at least in body, you hope you’ll be. Well, I hope I’ll be…without the prejudice. I don’t know about you, but I know very few 90-year olds. My grandfather is one and he’s in Toowoomba, bedridden. Angela Lansbury’s Daisy is the quintessential Jewish matriarch of the Deep South, and so spirited; full of the energy we desire in our later years. It’s only in her final moments that we see the stark contrast: a vulnerability and fragility that, finally, brings tears to my eyes. An extended standing ovation indicated that the emotional impact was widespread. And it’s not just because these actors are famous. It’s an exquisite, very special piece of theatre. We all know the effect of a good show is felt long after the curtain closes.


Director David Esbjornson, who made his Broadway debut with Driving Miss Daisy, ensures the political story pervades at every level, and digital elements are put to good effect, as we see images thrown across the back wall, of history in the making. Particularly disturbing is the white washed sign just outside the state of Georgia, warning the pair that they have crossed over into KKK country. A mottled paint job gives a grainy finish to projected photos and footage, like so many collective memories. A gentle golden light breaks up the shadows in the house, and delineates different areas used for phone calls and private conversations (Lighting Peter Kaczorowski). A cinematic underscore beautifully establishes mood and the passing of time (Music Mark Bennett).


The car device, which is set by the actors on a miniature revolve using a bench, a chair and a steering wheel on a stick, unexpectedly works a treat. The representation of the vehicle is the only abstract arrangement on stage and yet it’s completely acceptable. I heard behind me, “That’s clever!” and indeed it is; cleverness in its simplest, most economical, old-fashioned and dynamic theatrical form. A shifting staircase, and furniture pieces that glide on and off stage magically, provide a number of other interior settings and remind us that with a generous budget and a brilliant design team, simplicity can be achieved. The high-tech mechanicals certainly help but imagination and the suspension of disbelief are still key. The actors are the focus and the characters leave an indelible impression. The final moments are a superior gift.


Two old souls, just people; best friends until the end. And it’s at the end that we realise we’re the same, in spite of our pride, our age, our embedded prejudices…we’re all just people.


James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY (c) Jeff Busby

James Earl Jones in DRIVING MISS DAISY. Image by Jeff Busby.


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