Don’t miss the ride of two lifetimes
By Kim Edwards
To call a theatre event a once-in-lifetime experience is so often a cliché – but when seeing two golden stars of stage and screen of rare talent and rich careers, both now in their 80s, both in Melbourne, and sharing the stage together at the Comedy Theatre in Alfred Uhry‘s award-winning play, there is no other fitting phrase. Driving Miss Daisy received a standing ovation for opening night, and will no doubt enjoy packed houses for the rest of its Australian tour this year.
The story is endlessly appealing: a crotchety old Jewish lady (Angela Lansbury) is forced into accepting the services of black chauffeur Hoke (James Earl Jones) by her long-suffering son Boolie (Boyd Gaines), and the unlikely friendship that develops transcends class, race, creed and years. Lansbury was deliciously eccentric and briskly comedic as Daisy: if her portrayal was not quite as acerbic and biting as was needed to heighten the tension and contrast between the characters, her quiet pathos as the years passed was intensely moving and wonderful to see. Jones, reprising his Broadway role, is exceptional: his unexpected warmth and charm, the transformation of that famous booming and cultured voice into the delightful cadences of Hoke, and his beautifully underplayed comic timing made for a delicately crafted performance. Tony award-winner Gaines is a strong tether between the two leads, and his committed interpretation of Boolie is highly theatrical but appealing.
Director David Esbjornson has created a swift and smooth production that runs for ninety minutes without interval, and the deceptively simple set and staging is clearly designed to maintain focus on the famous cast. Sadly, this sleekness and streamlining is at the expense of moments of stillness or audience reflection: the episodic nature of the play means the story must roll briskly between the gentle, elderly pace of the characters’ interaction, but the poignant close of scenes (as when Daisy weeps) were whirled along without pause, which lessened their impact.
This production of Driving Miss Daisy was made for its audience, and if the sparks that fly when Darth Vader meets Mrs Lovatt are a little subdued, and the social commentary a little milder than the play warrants, it does not detract from the fact the fans are provided with everything else they could want: a ripe, heart-warming, engaging performance from two magnificent lead actors we are utterly privileged to see performing live on stage in Melbourne.
Driving Miss Daisy is playing until May 12 at the Comedy Theatre. Booking details are available here.