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NY Theater Reviews

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

IN LOW GEAR

By JESSICA BRANCH

Although the play lacks the pace and sense of socio-political setting that the film accomplishes, watching these actors makes this a worthy night of theater.

Talk about a star vehicle. Written in 1986, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry is best known as the 1989 movie starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman and Dan Ackroyd. But now it’s gotten a Broadway revamp with an even more stellar cast: Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. But if you were expecting an equally flashy automotive staging, be warned that there isn’t even a real car in this show – and that the play’s motor isn’t purring along as smoothly as it once may have.

That’s not to say the play doesn’t go anywhere. It dutifully rolls from 1948 through to the 70s, following the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship and of a changing nation. As you may recall from the film, the cranky Jewish Southern lady of the title (Redgrave) may be losing her ability to drive safely, but she’s hardly failing. Still possessed of a sound mind, a sharp tongue and very strong opinions, she’s more than a match for her genial son, Booth (Gaines). So when he puts his foot down to insist on hiring a driver for her, his mother stubbornly resists all the overtures that the none-too-young-himself African American Hoke (Jones) can come up with to get behind the wheel. Yet, gradually, the two begin to bond over their shared sense of being outsiders, and a genuine friendship grows between them, interrupted only intermittently by the divisions of sex, class and race that separate them.

Sweet and well intentioned, the play is subtler in tone and slower in pacing than the film, and not as overtly manipulative as you might expect, but its tribute to friendship starts to feel increasingly monotonous just when the play should be building. The series of bonding situations develops artfully, but their trajectories are hardly surprising and certainly not suspenseful. You know full well that irascible Daisy will slowly, gruffly come around in each encounter with Hoke. Eventually, you start wondering why Daisy takes so long to come to the foregone conclusion – over and over again.

It’s understandable that, with two such strong actors in the lead roles, director David Esb Johnson chose to let the central relationship of the play take precedence over the social and political factors that made it such an anomaly. But despite how understandable the choice is, it’s ultimately to the play’s detriment, as it prevents us from appreciating the surrounding shifts of society, which should provide far more than just scenery.

But Johnson’s choices do play to the compelling strengths of his cast. With an effective, unassuming set and no flashy effects, he showcases his two leads, who clearly enjoy the slow-developing drama, milking their unwinding roles to maximum effect. Redgrave brings a querulous charm to her frail but feisty Miss Daisy, and Jones adds unexpected depths to the gruff, amiable Hoke. Together, the two impart a real glee to the scenes in which they’re in cahoots. Seeing them engaged so fully in their craft, even in a less-than-perfect production, does make this play worth the ride.