It’s a star vehicle, so it seems apt that it’s about driving. Alfred Uhry’s touching tale about a crusty old widow and her long-suffering chauffeur is best known through the 1989 film, but it started life as a play, now revived at Wyndham’s with two masterly actors at the wheel.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Miss Daisy, a brisk former teacher, white, Jewish, living in Atlanta, whose unpredictability on the road leads her concerned son, Boolie, to hire a chauffeur. James Earl Jones is that chauffeur, Hoke, a bulky black man, none too young himself, who combines patience with dignity and plain-speaking pragmatism. Informed by his future employer that Miss Daisy is “high-strung”, he replies that he used to do hog-wrestling as a boy – “no hog got away from me yet” – an assurance that wins him the job.
It’s a spare piece, travelling from 1948 to the early 1970s in brief episodic scenes that sketch in the changing outside world. On one road trip Hoke is unable to use the garage bathroom because of his colour; in 1958 Miss Daisy’s synagogue is bombed for supporting the Civil Rights Movement; Boolie is scared to attend a talk by Martin Luther King in case his business clients disapprove. It is too slight, it feels choppy in places and it drives perilously close to sentimentality. The real interest is in the evolving friendship between the two stubborn old souls at its heart, and this is beautifully drawn in David Esbjornson’s production.
Redgrave begins the piece at her majestic best. Advised by Boolie (a droll Boyd Gaines) that she has become an insurance liability, she whisks eggs vehemently, as if the innocent cake mixture had stolen her independence. She treats Hoke first with haughty indifference, then with suspicion, then with impatience, arguing doggedly that he has lost the way although she had the map upside down. Jones matches her magnificently with a dry wit and a deep-seated self-respect that eventually erupts into full-blown anger.
The way the two age together is most poignant. Like two gnarled old vines they slowly intertwine: he grows more solid, slow and deliberate in his moves; she dwindles gradually, beginning to peer and shuffle. The final scene, as he feeds her in a nursing home, while she, toothless but still beady-eyed, accepts his proffered help, is both tender and touching.