At a distance, this threatened to be too easy a mark, too much of a sentimental sure thing for such theater legends. Surely, one might be forgiven for thinking Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones could have found a tougher, less familiar vehicle than "Driving Miss Daisy," Alfred Uhry's 1987 Pulitzer-winning drama and 1989 Oscar-winning movie.
Skeptics be warned. There is not a safe moment, not a disposable emotion in this devastating, deeply felt revival.
Directed with stealthy tension and almost elegiac elegance by David Esbjornson, this is a shimmering triumph of interlocking life studies by Redgrave, as the well-off and obdurate Jewish-Southern widow, and Jones as Hoke, her illiterate but equally proud black chauffeur in racially torn Atlanta in the '50s and '60s. Holding this adversarial odd-couple device together with comforting layers of grace and exasperation is Boyd Gaines as Boolie, Miss Daisy's assimilating grown son.
Esbjornson frames the play with the leisurely rhythms of memory. Boolie walks down a staircase that has drifted away from the wall in John Lee Beatty's poetically low-tech set. When Boolie pulls the sheets off the furniture, the staircase becomes solid and Redgrave briskly comes down to her kitchen to mix a cake.
Right away, Miss Daisy, 72, is smacked with that definitive life-marker, the loss of control of the car keys. Watch how Redgrave - her severe hair in a snood hairnet tied on top with incongruous bunny ears - loses the straightness of her spine as she loses her independence through the years. Observe how Jones conveys Hoke's complex way of maneuvering through contradictory forces, the joy clutched through the dead-end life. Watch the mutations in that spring in his step.
Inevitably, Miss Daisy and Hoke grow old - apart and together. Bigotries are shown, not told, while personal and political history is projected with haunting, hazy delicacy on the walls, and meticulously selected music colors the passing time between scenes.
Yes, the play is shamelessly manipulative. But it is supremely elegant manipulation, magnificently staged and performed.
WHAT "Driving Miss Daisy"
WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $65-$125; 212-239-6200; telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Devastating, deeply-felt revival