Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones
in Driving Miss Daisy
(© Annabel Clark)
Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones
in Driving Miss Daisy
(© Annabel Clark)
The exchange between the two women leaving the Golden Theater in front of me on Saturday went like this: "I was crying at the end," one said. "I was crying before that," the other said. And those tears have to be what the producers of Driving Miss Daisy had hoped to elicit when they decided to stage the first Broadway production of Alfred Uhry's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning play -- and signed Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones to star.

Because the production -- directed by David Esbjornson with all his skills revved to the max -- delivers what it promises, producers will be rewarded with more than tears. This will likely be the biggest commercial theater hit of 2010 (or at least since Denzel Washington and Viola Davis spent the early summer selling out the Cort in Fences .)

Uhry's 90-minute play, which is set in mid 20th-century Atlanta, focuses on the growing friendship between Daisy Werthan (Redgrave), a rich 72-year-old Jewish widow, and Hoke Coleburn (Jones), the 60-year-old African-American chauffeur hired to drive her by Daisy's prosperous son Boolie (Boyd Gaines) after his mother wrecks yet another car. The work not only navigates the fine line between sentiment and sentimentality with equanimity, it doesn't hurt that along the way Uhry adds in a dollop of social commentary as it hints at the effect the Civil Rights movement had on the changing South.

Structured as a memory play -- starting in 1972 and heading back nearly 25 years -- the work lends itself to a simple production. Here, designer John Lee Beatty restricts himself to isolated, gliding set-pieces rather than one of his trademark ready-to-move-into realistic sets, while costume designer Jane Greenwood keeps Jones in his chauffeur's uniform and Redgrave mostly in an unprepossessing red housecoat.

Of course, actors of their caliber hardly need fancy trimmings. Jones strikes exactly the right tones as a deferential Negro of the old, obsolescing South who never loses his dignity. Walking with his shoulders only slightly stooped, Jones knows when Hoke needs to smile in accord with his employer's wishes and when to shovel grit into his voice. No matter what, though, some form of "ma'am" accompanies most all of his utterances -- "yassum" and "nome," frequently among them.

Redgrave, erect as a Sabbath candlestick until Daisy's final moments in a nursing home, understands that the starchier she makes the adamantly independent retired teacher, the more hearty laughs she'll reap. She also realizes that Daisy's thawing -- which every audience member sees coming -- is where the script's appeal lies, and appropriately handles the subtle easing of Daisy's reserve towards Hoke. (Incidentally, the drawl Redgrave tries at the outset quickly evaporates, which is no loss for anyone who recalls her troublesome trip to the American South in Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending.)

Gaines (a four-time Tony Award winner) proves up to the challenge of holding his own against his co-stars. More than a mere plot device, Boolie is also the character who most accurately reflects the script's liberal Jewish political view (eventually shared by his mom) -- until an invitation to a dinner for Martin Luther King tests his resolve.

There's little doubt that Driving Miss Daisy is not just about a vehicle; it's a vehicle in the old theater sense. But when stars such as this trio dispense their charms and craft this well, audiences will be only too happy to go along for the ride.