With three great actors -- Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines -- at their apogee, the enchanting revival of “Driving Miss Daisy” is the best theater can be.
Most so-called feel-good plays are sentimental claptrap that television can manage better. “Driving Miss Daisy,” however, is art. Alfred Uhry’s play makes us feel good because it is absolutely honest, truthfully aware of the rough and the smooth of life, beautifully (not just prettily) written about real people learning as they live, caught on the wing by an author who has something very human to say.
It is the story of a crusty old Jewish widow in Atlanta, who, no longer a safe driver, has a canny elderly black chauffeur thrust upon her by her solicitous son over her vehement protests.
Daisy Werthan is a tough old bird, but son Boolie is no piker, and neither is the chauffeur, Hoke Coleburn.
Hoke has been through much. Besides being a fine driver, he is also a shrewd psychologist armed with a pawky sense of humor. Much as Miss Daisy tries to make things impossible for him, he summons the quiet riposte. It is a devilishly droll battle of wills, hers using every form of aggression, his turning not-quite-passive resistance into a thing of often comic beauty.
And so it evolves through the years, with Boolie acting as umpire, peacemaker and, always, the voice of exasperated but enduring reason. Georgia’s 50s and 60s go by, their political turbulence providing underscoring for the principals’ duet. The sweet, hard-earned victory for both Daisy and Hoke ends in something like a lovely sunset, with no garish colors or amplified birdsong.
The acting is simply superb. That is if the vast talents of the cast can be called simple. They are tried and true performers who bring ultimate artistry well beyond mere craft.
From Redgrave, it is a kind of sublime mugging and gloriously projected, perfectly Southern speech, going from chilly hauteur through sassy incandescence to bone-deep humanity.
From Jones, it is the most cannily deployed sense of volume and temperature control, of magisterially timed pauses, of irresistible laughter and unshakable dignity.
Gaines shows inexhaustible charm as the son, his very rants immensely graceful.
David Esbjornson has directed with a deep commitment to the material and with the rare gift of making cunning calibration feel spontaneous. Now add John Lee Beatty’s uncluttered, eloquent scenery, Jane Greenwood’s pertinent costuming, Peter Kaczorowski’s precise lighting, and the discreetly evocative projections of Wendall K. Harrington. All is supported by the gifted Mark Bennett’s unobtrusive but smartly enlivening score.
At the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com Rating: ****
Arthur Kopit’s “Wings” concerns Emily Stilson, a former flying acrobat -- a “wing walker” -- who, after a stroke, is hospitalized with aphasia. Jan Maxwell assumes the role created by Constance Cummings in 1978.
To be so struck down would seem particularly painful to a daredevil as close to the avian as a human can get short of metamorphosing into a bird. And it is indeed pitiful when a woman is revealed seated downstage center on an empty stage, nonambulatory and mute, even if still able to read effortfully from a book presently falling from her hands. An unseen clock reminds us with its amplified ticktocking of time passing and life bypassing Stilson.
In its 70 brief minutes, the play manages to encapsulate two years, although John Doyle’s direction does not make this clear. Nor is Maxwell, without aging makeup, the “woman well into her seventies” called for by the script.
If age does not so much matter here, Doyle’s casting and staging unfortunately do. Maxwell is a wonderful actress, but vulnerability, essential to Kopit’s portrait, is not her strong suit. In the end, neither cast nor production erased my fond memory of the original.
At Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; http://www.2st.com Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)