There are a few different kinds of standing ovations. There’s the perfunctory opening night ovation. The rolling ovation, that picks up momentum and vigour as it spreads across the audience. And then there’s the instantaneous ovation, where the lights come up and the audience, as one, leaps out of their seats.
It was this last one that erupted at the opening night of Driving Miss Daisy’s Sydney season, in a room packed with seasoned theatre-goers and fans. And it erupted with good reason. This show is a study in subtlety; there’s broadness to its comic sensibility that could result in exaggeration but these three legendary actors maintain the truth of the characters, keeping them on a level that is far more human than it is theatrical.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, Driving Miss Daisy was written by Alfred Uhry and premiered in 1987 at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. The adapted screenplay won the Academy Award in 1990. Needless to say, this is a play with extraordinary pedigree and a well-earned place in contemporary theatre. It’s only fitting that such a powerhouse play is gifted with a powerhouse cast, and that is exactly the case in this current touring production. The three names that make up the cast don’t require clarifying credits to prove their success (with perhaps the exception of Boyd Gaines, absurdly, as he is the only person ever to be nominated for all four actor categories at the Tony Awards). With James Earl Jones, Boyd Gaines, and Angela Lansbury on one stage, there an immediate centre of gravity in the room, and an immediate sense, from barely a minute into the play, that these are masters of their craft.
The story is one that has entered pop culture consciousness, largely in thanks to the movie of the same name – the story of the elderly Jewish woman whose son hires for her an African-African chauffeur, and their relationship as it moves through the course of the play. It isn’t complicated, but it is complex – deeply layered with social commentary, with those themes that insidiously creep into daily life sometimes, dangerously, without us noticing: classism, racism.
This play takes these issues and presents them through a manageable, less abstract context: through Mrs Werthan, Booley her son, and chauffeur Hoke. Instantly likable across the board, immediate and relatable, there’s a true emotional kinship that springs up over the course of the play between characters and audience. When crisis or conflict arrives it creeps up gently, and then devastates with quiet realisation as it settles. Director David Esbjornson has cultivated a play that unfolds like the rolling motion of the tide.
Carefully subtle staging compliments the organic performances, with – in particular – stellar and inventive lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski; it immediately create a sense of place on the Royal Stage. Projections are deftly handled, perfectly timed, and not in the least overwhelming or trite – a common pitfall for projected ambiance of any kind, successfully and cleverly avoided.
Jones and Gaines are superb and give compelling, astoundingly, deceptively simple performances; however it is Lansbury’s play. The new addition to the cast – this Broadway import production previously featured Vanessa Redgrave in the title role – Lansbury is the heart and soul of the piece that never wavers. She gives a tender performance that never once veers into sentimentality; she contrasts the tough, no-nonsense Dasy veneer with a beautiful, physical, degenerating fragility. Every moment and every movement is a masterclass in characterisation, and the audience dwells firmly in the palm of her hand.
With a cast whose reach transcends generations and whose successes are multitudinous, it is impossible to approach this play without the highest of expectations, and it does not, for a moment, disappoint. Australia has its own greats of stage and screen, of course, and Driving Miss Daisy does not fill a void of talent we are missing (if anything, it reflects and reinforces how truly on par our best – Otto, Rabe, Rush, and on and on – are with these better-known greats), but what it does do is provide us with a unique opportunity to experience some of the world’s best, performing at their best. It’s a worthy import.