Driving Miss Daisy

James Earl Jones at 80 is not to be missed, writes Andrew Billen.

Driving Miss Daisy
Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2

Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy is a play with three subjects. The first is racial prejudice, the second friendship and the third ageing. It is
not a great play about any one of them, but it is a good play about all three. Like a three-legged stool, it is more robust than it looks, in its simplicity, and provides a sturdy platform for two classical actors in their seniority who could easily have scorned the piece as too sentimental or too commercial. In this production, Vanessa Redgrave commands the title role like the great theatrical aristocrat she is. James Earl Jones is less showy as Hoke, the man doing her driving. He mooches through the show while projecting an alarmingly strong baritone voice and comes near to breaking your heart - surely the play's objective.

As readers who remember Bruce Beresford's 1991 Oscar-winning film know, Driving Miss Daisy is the story of a cantankerous, well-off old widow in the American Deep South who, having crashed her car, is persuaded by her son to take in a chauffeur. After rather more than token resistance, she eventually lets him driveher, first to the general stores then across the Georgia border to her brother's birthday party, and finally to a meeting with Martin Luther King. Miss Daisy is white and Hoke black.

The racial theme is treated more subtly than one might fear. Miss Daisy is Jewish, and only her insolence and, more importantly, her wealth protect her from receiving at least a homoeopathic dose of the prejudice that Hoke survives. During the play her local temple is burned down. On their trip to Alabama, a policeman out of earshot remarks: "An old nigger and an old Jew woman takin' off down the road together . . . that is one sorry sight!"

Later her son, played, a little quietly for such a successful businessman, by Boyd Gaines, confesses that he dare not associate himself with the King campaign, for fear of stirring up the latent anti-Semitism of his business community.

But Daisy believes in her own superiority in all aspects and sees other faith groups as pale imitators. At home, she declares herself free of prejudice, but practises a de facto apartheid by which her cook, Idella, and Hoke eat separately from her (although, to be fair, this also reflects their status as her servants).

Hoke, on the other side of the colour bar, is apolitical. It is not clear, when driving Miss Daisy to a King fundraising dinner, whether
he would wish to attend himself or not. When she gets round to asking him, he is in any case too proud to accept such a belated offer. Unlike Morgan Freeman, who in the film listens to the speech on the car radio, Jones chooses to play the subsequent scene as if he is not hearing it. Yet earlier, on the Alabama jaunt, when Daisy tries to prevent him stopping for a pee, he makes a speech about his humanity that half echoes the civil rights movement's "I am a man" slogan.

The play is much concerned with Miss Daisy's remedial sentimental education. In one of Redgrave's most effective moments, Daisy has to withdraw a charge that Hoke has stolen a tin of salmon; mortified but also afraid of losing face, Redgrave has Daisy slowly return the exhibit from mid-air to the level in a balletic gesture, as if lowering her amour propre. But Uhry is careful not to suggest that Daisy has to overcome racism, as such, before she can become friends with Hoke. There is much more going on than that, mostly involving her status and independence.

In the end, in her developing dementia, she begs Hoke for his hand of friendship. "Yes'm," he replies, unconsciously punishing her by not using her name. They are friends by the point where the play ends, but still unequal ones, the power in the relationship by now having reversed. Naturally, they are alike. Each is stubborn, yet pragmatic when it comes to accepting the inevitable. Clever and canny, both are ig­norant: she does not know how to behave; he cannot read. They help each other to overcome these deficiencies.

That the two become close only in the face of the attritions of old age is what gives the play its melancholy punch. David Esbjornson cleverly stages the production as if it were a memory play, emphasising the passing decades. The cumulative effect is of a threnody. Although one might quibble with his getting Redgrave to remove her teeth for the nursing-room scenes (would Daisy have allowed that indignity?), both actors refuse to prettify old age. Funnily enough, the line that resonates most with me is Daisy's, about her cook's sudden death: "Idella was lucky." The play is not as good as the film, but on "last chance to see" grounds, Jones at 80,
is not to be missed.

Andrew Billen is a writer for the Times.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying