In the 25 years since Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse first performed Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned To Drive, the name for the disturbing process that we witness being depicted on stage has long since entered widespread usage. If audiences can now readily label what happens as “grooming,” Vogel’s emotionally complex masterwork remains as unsettling, disarmingly funny and as deeply moving as ever.
Parker and Morse, so beautifully playing the roles they originated all those years ago under the same director, Mark Brokaw, fill the larger Broadway stage – the 1997 production was produced Off Broadway – with performances not so much expanded but deepened by time. Parker’s character, in particular, is intensified by the years, as if the burden of her childhood victimization has only grown heavier in middle age, her desire to understand it unabated.
How I Learned To Drive, opening tonight in a first-rate Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, stars Parker as a woman looking back on, and struggling to make sense of, her relationship with her abusive Uncle Peck (Morse). We know Parker’s character only by her childhood nickname, Li’l Bit, as if growth, in at least some ways, stopped at 11, the age when the devoted little niece was first groped by her uncle during the first of many private driving lessons.
A memory play in which the memories jump out in non-chronological – not to say illogical – order, How I Learned To Drive presents Li’l Bit’s encounters with Peck at various points in her pre-college years. We first meet them – Parker’s character narrates from a modern-day perspective recalling events of the 1960s and ’70s – when a 17-year-old Li’l Bit already seems wise beyond her years, and, oddly, in control.
“It’s 1969,” the older Li’l Bit tells us, setting the stage. “And I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all. In short, I am seventeen years old, parking off a dark lane with a married man on an early summer night.” Now we see Peck and Li’l Bit sitting in the chairs that represent the car seats. “I love the smell of your hair,” the older man says, with the girl already knowing what comes next. “Uh-huh,” she says.
Other flashbacks depict the adolescent girl offering to meet up with her troubled uncle when she senses he’s going through one of his frequent rough (i.e., drunken) patches, showing a sympathy for the man that can be tough to observe. This aspect of the play – Vogel’s expansive understanding of, and even compassion for, the damaged people who damage others – was perhaps the most shocking and controversial element back in the 1990s, and even today strikes an unsettling note. It’s no trendy oversimplification to suggest that Li’l Bit cancels her uncle physically – she will eventually shut him out of her life – but his hold on her affections, however achieved, remains a stubborn, haunting burden.
Vogel intersperses scenes of the uncle-niece encounters with depictions of other family memories, many of them comic if, on second thought, no less disturbing. In one, Li’l Bit’s mother (Johanna Day) instructs her daughter on the finer points of social drinking, a hilarious riff that stands in stark counterpoint to the sight of Uncle Peck plying his underage niece with one martini after another. In other scenes of family get-togethers, we’re made painfully aware of the damage done and boundaries crossed when grandfathers make crude jokes about a young girl’s developing breasts, and grandmothers laugh it all off as simply the cost of sharing life with a man.
All of the scenes, with a couple exceptions, play out on a spare stage, moodily lit (Rachel Hauck is the set designer, Mark McCullough the lighting designer, and Dede Ayite designed the unobtrusively appropriate period costumes). Only a scene in the uncle’s basement den and, later, a motel room, convey more detailed reality, and both feature the stark lighting of an old stag film.
In a incisive bit of casting, the actress playing the grandmother, Alyssa May Godd, appears considerably younger than any of the other actors on stage, a sort of theatrical slight of hand that will come shatteringly into play later, when Godd makes a brief appearance as the 11-year-old Li’l Bit – the only time the character is played by anyone other than Parker. Both Godd and Parker appear onstage simultaneously as Uncle Peck begins his first molestation, the expressions on their faces saying what their voices can’t: The young girl shocked and hurt and confused, her middle-aged self still horrified by what she sees and searching the face of this trusted man for an explanation that she knows will never really arrive.