Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 19, 2022
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Mark McCullough . Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Video design by Lucy Mackinnon. Music direction and vocal arrangement by Stephen Oremus. Dialect coach Deborah Hecht.
Twenty-five years ago, this play made its New York debut at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. Back then, Mary-Louise Parker starred as Li'l Bit, whose memories of being sexually groomed and molested all during the course of her pre-adolescent and adolescent years provide the content of the plot. Playing her predatory Uncle Peck was David Morse. In one of the important supporting roles, portraying both Li'l Bit's mother and her aunt, Uncle Peck's wife, was Johanna Day. Mark Brokaw directed. I tell you this because all of them, Parker and Morse and Day and Brokaw are back, revisiting and digging ever more deeply into their original roles.
Far from being a casting gimmick, their return to the play has allowed them to imbue their work with far greater complexity. The tipped scales, still and rightly favoring the victim, have nevertheless inched closer to being in balance through an interpretation that adds layers of psychological profundity. The fact that Parker and Morse and Day are twenty-five years older now makes not a jot of difference. It is a memory play, after all, and deep-rooted memories have a way of keeping a tight grip on us until the very end of life.
Still, for the audience, a lot has changed in that quarter century, including the very notion that pedophilia might emerge as a topic of public discourse. Does the name Jeffrey Epstein ring a bell? What about the allegations against Michael Jackson, mentioned ever so obliquely in the musical MJ but openly discussed in other venues? Or the off-the-wall QAnon theories about "pizzagate?" Or playwright David Mamet's recent public remarks suggesting that teachers, especially male teachers, are inclined to be pedophiles?
One likely thing is that Li'l Bit's Uncle Peck would never consider himself to be a pedophile. A true Southern gentleman through and through, he would never force himself on her. "I'm not going to do anything you don't want me to," is something he repeats frequently. He's even given up drinking for her. And that private photo shoot when she is 13 years old? "No one will see this. You're doing this only for me." Followed by the clincher: "I love you." And that's the act of grooming, something that in this production David Morse has turned into a masterpiece of performance through his every gesture, facial expression, gentle Southern charm, and tone of voice.
In Morse's hands, Uncle Peck has become a man not only in self-deluding denial, but also someone whose psychological profile suggests he is carrying a lifetime of pain and personal vulnerability. Incredibly, this holds true even when we learn that Li'l Bit is not his only victim. Regardless, it is, in part, what draws Li'l Bit to him. He is a father figure, no doubt, but he is also in Li'l Bit's eyes a vulnerable little boy, so that when her mother questions her about the time she is spending with him, she is confident in her response: "I can take care of myself. And I can certainly take care of Uncle Peck."
Through various short scenes with other family members and school-aged peers, all played by a "Greek chorus" made up of an excellent trio of actors (Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, and Chris Myers), we get a sense of why Li'l Bit is drawn toward Uncle Peck's gentleness and apparent sympathetic support of her when she is being cruelly teased by her peers, or when she is being subjected to her grandfather's coarseness.
For her part, Ms. Day shines in her comic recitation of "a mother's guide to social drinking," a backdrop to a scene in which a teenage Li'l Bit is in a restaurant with Uncle Peck and quickly (with his encouragement) downs three martinis. But far more significant is what she says in the role of Li'l Bit's aunt, about the relationship between her husband and her niece. "I know he has troubles. And we don't talk about them. And I want to say this about my niece. She's a sly one, that one is. She knows exactly what she's doing; she's twisted Peck around her little finger and thinks it's all a big secret."
Through scenes like this, we can see how extraordinarily perceptive Paula Vogel has been about revealing Li'l Bit's memories, which unfold, as memories do, in a nonlinear, non-chronological fashion, until we get to the play's final core scene. In it, we see the first time Uncle Peck gives Li'l Bit a driving lesson, which also is when he begins what would become years of molesting her. And while it is not done in any explosively dramatic way, it provides us with the answer to the question I asked at the beginning: "Can you imagine yourself feeling sympathy for or offering forgiveness to a pedophile?" Until this scene, thanks to a brilliant script, coupled with an equally brilliant performance by David Morse, there exists at least possibility of a "maybe." That is all wiped away in one ugly moment.
By any measure, How I Learned to Drive is the story of a woman who is approaching a crossroads in her life by starting to come to grips with what took place decades before. The play represents a journey toward self-healing, and even self-forgiveness to the extent that such is necessary. But nowhere is there a word of forgiveness for Uncle Peck. Maybe that possibility lies in the future, but any such decision is not ours, but Li'l Bit's to make.