HOW LEARNED TO DRIVE - Manhattan Theatre Club
Even with the deluge of news about sexual abuse at all levels of society in the last two decades, Paula Vogel’s drama HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is as deserving of the Pulitzer Prize now as it was in 1998. The enduring power of this superbly crafted, sensitively staged and brilliantly acted memory play is the power of memory itself. And to underscore the drama’s timeless value, the principal actors - an equally astonishing Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse - twenty-five years later take up their original roles with even more relevance and dimension.
The memories are those of Li’l Bit (Mary-Louis Parker) who in her pre-teen and teenage years was sexually abused by her Uncle Peck ( David Morse). Li’l Bit, in itself, implies something less. Told in non-chronological, intercutting flashbacks from the 1960s, Li’l Bit’s family is played by a trio of male, female and teenage Greek chorus.
There’s not one role model among Li'l Bit's family. Li’l Bit's grandmother boasts of getting knocked up by Li’l Bit’s grandfather at the age of 14 and submitting to him ever since. The best thing that grandpa can say about Li’l Bit, a preteen of remarkable intellect, is that her breasts are her biggest asset. Li’l Bit’s divorced alcoholic mother’s instruction for better living is how to drink a man under the table and have him still think he’s in charge. Li’l Bit’s aunt, her mother’s sister, knows what Pete and Li'l Bit are doing, but Pete’s a good man; Li’l Bit’s the troublemaker. In Li’l Bit, Peck the Predator has the perfect prey: someone who’s been told she is something less, at best, her whole life.
How does Li’l Bit survive? At every turn, whether the 11 year old at first encounter with Peck who instinctively knows she's in danger or the 19 year old who ends the “relationship”, Vogel has created a fiercely, naturally intelligent character. Parker fits the part perfectly (as her intelligence fits her part in “The Sound Inside” a few years back). Morse presents a pathetic, alcoholic creature who has “loved Li'l Bit since she was a baby”; Morse creates a character of seamless self-delusion.
Credit to director Mark Brokaw for his crisp, economic pacing, that allows no time for sentiment. Kudos to to Mark McCullough for his keen lighting design that punctuates both narrative and emotional points of crisis. (My theater companion remarked that the simplicity of the staging recalled going to theater in London; this production is akin to something one could as a matter of course at, say, The Royal Court, for example). The chorus cast of three is superb, but Johanna Day stands out as mother and aunt.
The real brilliance of Vogel’s narrative, of course, is the metaphor of driving. Pete’s abuse of Li’l Bit starts in the car. His “driving lessons” are about control. Man manipulates machine; Uncle Peck manipulates a girl, a teen, a young woman. His extreme self- delusion couldn't begin to acknowledge any metaphor. Person is object.
Fortunately, today, brave women have come forward so there are abused women other abused women can turn to, but the fundamentals of abuse remain the same. In “How I Learned to Drive” by sheer independent will and force, Li’l Bit leaves Peck behind in the rear view mirror of her life, but memories endure forever.