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March 3, 2012

"How I Learned to Drive" is a Great Ride

Whenever I’ve had the good fortune to talk to young playwrights, Paula Vogel’s name always seems to come up.  They’ve all read or seen her work.  Most have been inspired by it.  Many want to study with her. 

It would be easy to understand why they feel that way if you're lucky enough to see the current revival of Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, which will finish a month-long run at Second Stage Theatre on March 11. For it is a masterwork that deserves a place on the Mount Rushmore of great American plays.

Although rooted in a particular time and set of events, great plays reveal something about the broader struggle to be human and to be loved that is so elemental that these works can—and should be—revived for generation after generation, as is happening this season with Arthur Miller’s Death of  A Salesman  (opening March 15) and Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire (opening April 22).

This is the first time that How I Learned to Drive has been revived in New York since it premiered in a Vineyard Theatre production back in 1997 but this production should secure its place in the canon.  

How I Learned to Drive is a memory play about the complicated relationship between a young girl and the uncle who sexually abused her. It is told over 90 tight minutes in a series of scenes that jump back and forth in time, reflecting the way most of us tell stories about our lives.

As my friend Lisa and I walked to the always-reliable Joe Allen for a bite after the show, she reminded me how obsessed the country was with stories about child abuse and recovered memory in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Vogel was writing How I Learned to Drive.

Stories about satanic ritual abuse at the McMartin preschool in southern California filled newspapers, magazine and books back then. Novelist Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for 'A Thousand Acres,' a modern-day retelling of the King Lear story in which it is revealed that the Lear-figure, an Iowa farmer who prematurely divides his land among his three daughters, had earlier molested two of them. 

What set How I Learned to Drive apart then—and makes it just as compelling now—is Vogel’s ability to see that a man can be despicable and good at the same time.  For while the uncle's actions will damage the girl so profoundly that it will take years before she can heal, he is also  the only one in their extended family who appreciates her intelligence and encourages her to be a full person.   

The play, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, blew me away when I first saw it at the Vineyard. Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse won every possible award for their portrayals of the girl Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck and so although I was eager to see the play again, I feared it might be impossible to match those indelible performances.  But Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz do a damn fine job.

Reaser is probably best known for appearing in the “Twilight” movie series (although I know her as the sportswriter girlfriend who almost stole Will away from Alicia on “The Good Wife”) but she is also a Juilliard-trained actor and is clearly at home on a stage (click here to read a Q&A with her). Her Li’l Bit comes across as less precocious than Parker’s but that naiveté may better reflect the helpless confusion that so many abused kids feel.

In many ways, Peck is the harder role. There is an underlying sadness and even a sweetness to him but the actor playing the part has to resist the temptation to overplay those qualities so that the audience can feel the same betrayal that Li’l Bit does. 

Butz, deservedly famous for his song-and-dance roles in shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, wouldn’t seem a natural choice for this part but he’s more than up to the challenge and his Peck seduces and repels with equal conviction.

The leads get solid support from Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenburg, who are the show’s Greek Chorus, portraying a variety of roles, some of which provide comic relief (a little too much at times) and Regan gets a lovely moment as Peck’s wife who knows his secrets and loves him still. 

They are  all smartly directed by Kate Whoriskey, making a triumphant return to the New York boards after an unexpectedly short stay at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, which revealed that it was broke just weeks after she took over as artistic director (click here to remind yourself about that). 

The production deserves a longer run but the actors have other commitments.  So hurry and see it if you can and if not, join me in praying that it won’t be so long before we get a chance to see How I Learned to Drive again.

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