It’s been 25 years since Paula Vogel’s landmark drama about sexual assault and its reverberations first debuted Off-Broadway. Since then, private transgressions, like those that Li’l Bit experiences at the hands of her Uncle Peck in “How I Learned to Drive,” have more often been exposed and met with public condemnation, particularly in the wake of #MeToo.
It would be some comfort to say that Vogel’s taxonomy of how men and women are socialized into sexual beings feels outdated or old-fashioned, but it surely doesn’t. This reunion of original stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse rather feels like a kind of haunting, confronting the present with ghosts who never left. The play’s long-overdue Broadway premiere is bracing, intimate, expertly inhabited and a rare chance to see artists reanimate their work with the benefit of wisdom.
It’s 1969 and Li’l Bit is 17, she recalls, turning the key in a narrative that accelerates both forward and back over the timeline of her forced sexual awakening. The connection between Li’l Bit and her and Uncle Peck is illuminated in flashes, amid signals from the outside world about how women are meant to maneuver their bodies in relation to men. While her mother (Johanna Day) offers a mid-century manners guide for not getting too sauced on a date, the boys and girls at school make a spectacle of Li’l Bit’s early physical development.
Vogel’s writing has a distilled quality, whittling events down to their essence as the mind does with memory. Her conceit of mapping sexual trauma onto an instructive driver’s manual has both metaphoric and formal logic, navigating an impossibly thorny landscape with ease and agility. “How I Learned to Drive” is also a stop-motion collision, allowing viewers to witness how it feels to be shaped by the world, to inherit the demons of others and to forge a path forward. And it’s a terrifically powerful vehicle for reprised performances from its leading stars.
Parker’s Li’l Bit slouches as if to hide herself, because she’s young and insecure, but also detached from a body she doesn’t feel belongs to her. In loose-fitting jeans, a worn plaid button-down and boots, she’s wounded and forthright but not unguarded, a delicate play of juxtapositions (the consummate costume design is by Dede Ayite). If a young Li’l Bit gets caught in headlights, gradually she learns to blink and stare back in quiet resolve.
Parker is among the most captivating and intricate stage actors of her generation, and the assurance and vulnerability of her return to “How I Learned to Drive” is a marvel. Since the play is an act of remembrance, the weight pressing down on Li’l Bit only seems to have grown more profound as Parker steps back into the role. As both narrator and subject of her recollections, Parker has an emotional translucence that allows us to feel the fire in Li’l Bit’s mind while she maintains a survivor’s conditioned composure.
Part of the genius in Vogel’s design is in crafting a multidimensional sexual predator, recognizing the potential for monstrosity in human behavior. The perverse benevolence of Morse’s Uncle Peck is heartbreaking in its own way, a testament to the depth and delicacy of his performance. There’s a gentleness to this older iteration of Uncle Peck that renders his actions all the more chilling, and Morse inhabits the character’s humanity with a devastating clarity.
There’s a lightness to the production, too, from the original director Mark Brokaw, that follows Vogel’s dexterous hand with a difficult subject. The lighting design by Mark McCullough and original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem are instruments of levity, particularly early on, lending a game-show feel to the first few lessons. The glowy rectangles of Rachel Hauck’s set, which change in color and texture, provide a versatile backdrop for the drama’s shifting terrain.
Sometimes our cultural impulse to look in the rearview mirror is a means of avoidance, averting our eyes from what’s in front of us. Nostalgia reigns up and down the boards this season, in productions that variously cater to audience desire for reflection or escape. But “How I Learned to Drive” has not receded over the past quarter century, it’s only gained momentum. The play’s full impact is finally being felt on Broadway, and it’s forceful, direct and too jarring to ignore.
“How I Learned to Drive” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on April 19, 2022.
Review Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Creative: Written by Paula Vogel; Original Music by David Van Tieghem; Vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus; Musical Director: Stephen Oremus; Directed by Mark Brokaw; Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Mark McCullough; Sound Design by David Van Tieghem; Video Design by Lucy Mackinnon.
Producer: Manhattan Theatre Club.
Cast: David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker, Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers.