What do you mean in five years?
You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen.
Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?
Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best.
I would never do that!
Why? There’s nothing wrong with Playboy–it’s a very classy maga–
But I thought you said I should go to college!
Such is an exchange between a 47-year-old man taking nude photographs of his 13-year-old niece in author Paula Vogel’s haunting memory play, How I Learned to Drive. With often jolting effect, Ms. Vogel depicts the sexual molestation and its psychological damage on a Maryland girl from the ages 11 to 18, during the years 1962 to 1969.
Brilliant short non-linear scenes are narrated by Lil’ Bit, her nickname comes from a jocular family reference to her genitalia made when she was an infant. The sexual assault began during a driving lesson and the ensuing unsettling relationship is chronicled with taste, wryness and a matter-of-fact tone. Various other characters including family members and high school students are represented by a three person Greek Chorus. It’s all part of Vogel’s accomplished sense of theatricality and command of dramatic writing. Presented Off-Broadway in 1997, How I Learned to Drive ran for over a year and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A lure of this Broadway premiere revival is 25 years later experiencing the acclaimed performances of much of its original cast. Being a memory play, their current ages are irrelevant, especially when their talents are impeccable. With her renowned charismatic stage presence, Mary-Louise Parker is monumental as Lil’ Bit. Ms. Parker’s drawling vocal delivery and magnetism fully and poignantly realizes the character from the perspective of an older woman looking back on her dysfunctional adolescence. The soft-spoken and shattering David Morse soulfully embodies Uncle Peck, a delusional W.W. II veteran who has descended into alcoholism and pedophilia.
New York stage mainstay Johanna Day also recreates her original role as the Female Greek Chorus and is equally as powerful. As Lil’ Bit’s mother, she is eloquently wary of Uncle Peck from the start and as his wife, Aunt Mary, she majestically delivers a passionate monologue confessing knowledge of the situation and a defense of her husband. Chris Myers as the Male Greek Chorus and Alyssa May Gold as the Teenage Greek Chorus both shine while bringing depth to their multiple roles.
Mark Brokaw directed the play 25 years ago and does so here again with subtlety, precision and momentum. Mr. Brokaw’s exceptional work with the cast is matched by his technical mastery and attention to the visual. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides a perfect dreamy landscape for the material with a bare stage framed by geometric panels, some chairs and integral props. The lighting design by Mark McCullough artfully conveys the sense of the past. Composer David Van Tieghem’s atmospheric original score is well-rendered by his proficient sound design. Mr. McCullough and Mr. Van Tieghem also worked on the original production in their same capacities. Dede Ayite’s costume design is appropriately basic.
This mesmerizing incarnation of How I Learned to Drive, affirms Paula Vogel’s achievement and showcases its tremendous actors.
How I Learned to Drive (March 29 – June 12, 2022)
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission