It is fairly wonderful to see Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as the warring stereotypes of a Southern Jewish matriarch and her illiterate black chauffeur in Alfred Uhry’s sentimental 1987 comedy, since filmed with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in those roles.
But this Broadway production, which I saw in New York last year, does nothing much to convince you that the crumbling hip generation of the late 1950s and early 1960s presaged a change in society for the better; so they chuck in footage of Martin Luther King on a civil rights march and a quick recorded chorus of “we shall overcome some day”.
The play proceeds by numbers, each scene ticking off a point but not quite clinching it; it lacks heart and it lacks soul, always did, even in the superior West End production of 1988 starring Wendy Hiller and Clarke Peters. Daisy’s son, businessman Boolie - nicely done here, as on Broadway, by Boyd Gaines - insists on giving his mother a black chauffeur after she’s pranged the car.
Redgrave has some great moments, as when she’s forced to revise her melodramatic accusation of a tin of salmon heist into a graceful withdrawal, as if fluently granting the point without conceding it; and she almost solves the play’s gratuitous time leaps (from 1954 to 1972) by suddenly hunching her shoulders and developing arthritic arm movements.
But as white momma and black servant find common ground, in a most simplistic fashion, and the play ends with an act of squirm-inducing kindness, Redgrave in a wheelchair gawping like a beached dolphin, you steel yourself for an embarrassing curtain call.
This play has won Tonys, Oscars and the Pulitzer Prize. So what do I know? David Esbjornson’s direction is tidy, John Lee Beatty’s scenic design of a shifting, deliquescent Georgia efficient enough, even though it’s ruined with those projections, and the bemusing soundtrack quotes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Too many cooks may spoil this broth, with some 19 producers listed above the title. This is “event” theatre without a happening, “masterpiece” culture without a beating heart, and the sort of sentimental old-fashioned fare that is liable to get routine jukebox musicals, in comparison, a good name.