Some plays charge out of the gate. Some meander, then come into focus. And some just unfold at their own very individual pace, and rather like becoming acquainted with an independent-minded cat it is up to you to align yourself with that play’s bearing, and approach it with care on its own terms.
Paula Vogel’s stunning, Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, and opening on Broadway tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (to May 29) is one of those plays.
If you are reading this, you may be about to break this critic’s other recommendation—that you go see it (really, go see it!), without knowing anything about it. The play, directed by Mark Brokaw with a sensitive restraint when the temptation to be explicit is great, is revelatory in so many ways, and so if you go knowing next to nothing you will be both dazzled and also emotionally floored at the end.
The play was first performed off-Broadway in 1997. It was meant to premiere on Broadway in March 2020, but COVID struck. This production unites the original cast of Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, and Johanna Day, and Brokaw too.
Parker is Li’l Bit, who we watch age throughout her life, from young girlhood to adult. Morse is her uncle Peck, and the play charts—going backwards and forwards in time, and centered about the process of her learning to drive—his abuse of her. As Li’l Bit says at the beginning of the play, “Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.”
The play follows this structure, and how learning to drive goes from being a cover for abuse to a route to liberation. The play is studded with references, like: “Vehicle Failure... If you are driving at any speed when a breakdown occurs, you must slow down and guide the automobile to the side of the road.”
The play begins with a scene when Li’l Bit is 17, and in a car with Peck, a moon illuminating the cloak of Maryland night. At this stage we only know she is having a relationship with a much older man, who says he loves the smell of her hair (a result of Herbal Essence shampoo) and that he is a “horny boy scout” who wants to lift her blouse. And then the audience receives its first jolt of horror: “Uncle Peck—we’ve got to go. I’ve got graduation rehearsal at school tomorrow morning. And you should get on home to Aunt Mary—”
Morse’s performance is so brilliantly terrifying, because of his affable gentility. Peck’s outward sweetness means he flies below any radar, although given the attitudes of the time—around the moral invincibility of adults and innate untrustworthiness of children—Peck has a pretty low bar to scale.
What is soon apparent is his gaslighting of his niece, making her feel she has a say, that she has power and agency, as he leeches her identity and independence out of her. And, as he does so, his tone is one of solicitousness, its veneer an uncle’s concern while beneath is the ugliness of what he is really doing to her and his control over her.
Li’l Bit, as portrayed by Parker in a similarly tour de force performance, thinks she is doing her uncle and aunt a favor by what she thinks is helping him talk. But even at that age, she knows her aunt and mom may not see it like that, and so she plays right into his hands by insisting it be as secret as possible. Li’l Bit herself says she was 16 or so “before I realized that pedophilia did not mean people who loved to bicycle...”
His is a horrendous masterclass of malign grooming, far from how that word has been recently co-opted by Republican bigots to trash LGBTQ people. “Nothing is going to happen until you want it to,” Peck tells Li’l Bit, and then adds quickly, “Do you want something to happen?” Peck decries Li’l Bit’s “Neanderthal” male classmates, and tells her, “For a thirteen-year old, you have a body a twenty-year old woman would die for.”
But Li’l Bit is not painted as a victim; she has spark, sass, and agency. She is too brainy for this town, and eager to get out. When Peck says, “I'm a very patient man. I've been waiting for a long time. I don't mind waiting,” she replies, far too old and wise for her teenage years, “Someone is going to get hurt.”
His abuse of her is constant, yet we rarely see it physically. When it happens, she freezes, and so do we. You think: His hands can’t really be there, doing that. But they are. And they don’t move. Inwards go both Li’l Bit and Peck, as the abuse continues, as he executes it and she comes to make a horrified sense of it.
Three other actors play a multitude of family members and friends, according to age and gender. Day plays what is listed as “Female Greek Chorus,” which includes Li’l Bit’s mom and aunt. Alyssa May Gold plays the “Teenage Greek Chorus,” which includes Li’l Bit’s grandmother who is so keen to discuss her and her grand-daughter’s breasts at the dinner table.
Chris Myers plays the “Male Greek Chorus,” which includes Li’l Bit’s grandfather who also grotesquely objectifies her. “How is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark?” he asks when Li’l Bit talks about her own education. There is, somehow, much humor in the play, especially when mother, grandmother and granddaughter get together to talk men, sphincter muscles, and skillet pans heavy enough to conk their menfolk on the head with.
Day is particularly notable as Li’l Bit’s mom, whose lack of care and for criticism of her daughter leaves her dangerously unmoored following the abrupt departure of her husband. However, she also supplies humor advising her daughter on drinks: “Stay away from ‘ladies’ drinks: drinks like Pink Ladies, slow gin fizzes. daiquiris, gold Cadillacs,” and so many others. Also: “Get your vitamin C from fruit.”
In one stunning scene, Day also plays Peck’s wife, Li’l Bit’s aunt, who tells us she knows exactly what is going on. Well, we think, how could you stand by and countenance your husband’s despicable abuse of your niece. She reads our minds, and reveals herself to be another victim of patriarchal grooming. She blames Li’l Bit for Peck’s abuse. She doesn’t see it as abuse. She sees her niece as deliberately seducing her husband, and hates her for it. As with much of the play, you just want to shout “Noooo!”
Rachel Hauck’s design is bare bones, with a telegraph pole a sole symbol of open roads, and it really looks like a cross. Mark McCullough’s lighting is transporting—conveying everything from family get-togethers to dancehalls, crisp nights, and empty highways. Simple design elements float on to the stage for specific moments, most heart-stoppingly a bed in a motel room that Peck has booked to welcome the student Li’l Bit.
At this point, she has not been responding to his letters. She is reaching the age, and also the self-awareness and point of strength, to make the break. But he wheedles and asks, and tries again to get into her head and her into bed, a bottle of champagne to hand at this meeting that is the furthest possible thing from a celebration.
The sighing of the audience at this moment as Li’l Bit tries to extricate herself, our tangible crackle of horrified anger, tells its own story about the power of Vogel’s writing and the skill of Parker and Morse performing these intensely difficult, brutal-to-watch scenes. And all of that is what makes the final moments, the final words of the play, so much sweeter.