Broadway review by Adam Feldman
Most good theater lives on, if it’s lucky, only in the memory of those who saw it. Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, one of the signal plays of the 1990s, represents an exception. With a firm eye on the rearview mirror, this production reunites director Mark Brokaw, who helmed the show’s premiere at the Vineyard in 1997, with its two extraordinary original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse; also along for the ride is Johanna Day as the principal soloist in the show’s Greek Chorus of three, plus lighting designer Mark McCullough and sound designer David Van Tieghem. After more than a quarter of a century, they all move assuredly in old roles as the play shifts back into gear.
That is not to say that How I Learned to Drive is ever quite a comfortable experience. The subject of Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize–winning drama is childhood sexual abuse, and although it treats this question with complexity and tact—there is nothing exploitive about it—it gives you a cumulative sense of the creeps. Because it is a Glass Menagerie–style memory play, the ages of the principal actors don’t really matter. Parker puts her gift for playing smart, broken women to powerful use as our narrator, known as Li’l Bit. With unsentimental candor and a vestigial Maryland accent, Li’l Bit sets the first scene: “It's 1969. 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.”
The married man is her Uncle Peck—Morse, soft-spoken and boyishly handsome—with whom she interacts in a series of flashbacks that gradually, insistently, move backward through her teenage years. Her feelings about him are lousy with ambivalence. A seeming oasis of Southern gentility in her boorish family, which assigns nicknames based on its members’ private parts, Uncle Peck presents himself as her ally, treating her like the adult she wants to be: “I'm very proud of you,” he tells her. “I think you have a wonderful body and an even more wonderful mind.” But he has demons that he struggles to contain, and she’s an early bloomer. (Not that she’s his only prey; in a monologue, we see him talking to her cousin Bobby, teaching him to reel in a fish even as he’s getting his own hooks in.)
On Broadway, both the writing and the production sometimes feel a little small for the space. This is a play that thrives on, and plays with, the whole idea of intimacy; ideally, you should feel its breath on your neck a bit. But How I Learned to Drive remains incisive and affecting, not only in the ways that it explores sexual trauma as a personal experience but also in how it places that experience within a larger social matrix: the waiters and other enablers who turn blind eyes, the family members who enforce bad rules. (Day plays two of them, with perfect wry toughness.) And Vogel makes troubling points about the aftershocks of pain, and how they get processed and passed along. Sex is not a villain here, but abuse is a reproductive system.
How I Learned to Drive. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Paula Vogel. Directed by Mark Brokaw. With Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, Chris Myers. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.
How I Learned to Drive | Photograph: Courtesy Jeremy Daniel