Before the trilogy was written, Alfred Uhry had written the book for The Robber Bridegroom (1975) produced by SCT last spring. Uhry has been awarded these prizes: Pulitizer Prize for Drama, Driving Miss Daisy (1988); Oscar Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay, Driving Miss Daisy (1989); Tony Award for Best Play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997); Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, Parade (1999).
Driving Miss Daisy opened in April 1987 produced by Playwrights Horizon. It became so successful that Playwrights Horizon moved it to another 42nd Street off-Broadway theatre, the John Houseman. After a total of 1,195 performances it closed in June 1990. The original cast at Playwrights Horizon was Dana Ivey, Morgan Freeman, Ray Gill. Morgan Freeman played Hoke in the film. For once, one could not complain about Hollywood’s casting choices. Jessica Tandy, one of the finest actresses of her time, played Daisy. She won an Oscar for her portrayal. Dan Aykroyd played the son.
In October 2010 a Broadway production was mounted with Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. It was a limited run but was extended to April 2011. In September 2011 the same cast opened a production in London’s West End that played until December 2011. In February to June 2013, the production toured Australia with Angela Lansbury playing the role of Daisy. While on that tour, it was filmed and later shown on PBS.
At the time she won the Oscar in 1989, Jessica Tandy was 80, the oldest person ever to win the award for acting. When she did the Australian tour, Lansbury was 88. The original Miss Daisy, Dana Ivey, was a mere baby at 46. Redgrave was 73. Morgan Freeman was only 50 when he first portrayed the role. James Earl Jones was 79 when he played the role on Broadway. When they first meet, the characters are ages, Daisy, 72 and Hoke, 60. The play spans 25 years. The last scene is Hoke visiting Daisy in a nursing home.
To see either Vanessa Redgrave or James Earl Jones on stage was an opportunity not to be missed, but to see them together brought untold riches. Watching the sparring, the give and take, the deepening of their relationship, and the chemistry between two consummate actors was a master class in itself. In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called them, “giants still walk that tired, old corner of the earth called Broadway.”
James Earl Jones made a fascinating acting choice at the top of the play. He knew his resonant booming voice (think Darth Vader) would not work for Hoke. In the opening scene, Hoke is being interviewed by Boolie as to his suitability to be a chauffeur for his Mother Daisy Werthan. In the first few lines Jones’s voice booms out as we all know it. He stops, reins in his voice and changes his physicality to slight hunch, and later moves in a slight shuffle. He is in front of a white man in 1948 South. Jones knew the attitude and sound that he must adopt for Hoke.
Vanessa Redgrave, with a back ramrod straight and unbending mien and dictatorial manner of the grade-school teacher she had been, created a woman frightened by her approaching aging and need to depend on others. Her gait was sharp and angular. In a series of vignettes their growing interdependence deepens and enriches each.
The vocal timbre and dynamics were fascinating. The Miss Daiseys I had seen previously were violins (as is Angela Lansbury later seen in the role). Redgrave is a cello. Jones is a bass or maybe double bass. What beautiful music these giants created.
Previously Springfield Little Theatre produced Driving Miss Daisy with Karen Malone Luna playing the title role.