By Tulis McCall

OK.  I stand corrected.  Or reassured.  Or something along those lines.

I have always been a fan of Mary-Louise Parker‘s film work.  Stage – not so much.  What is subtle on film becomes vague on stage.  Well, that is how it was all the time.  With this production of “How I Learned To Drive,” all that has changed. Parker is superb: mischievous, tragic, risky and innocent.  A perfect blend for an imperfect woman.

This production was slated for a 2020 production.  But the pandemic had another ideas, and I can’t help but wonder if the two year hiatus gave this team more time to dig deep.

This is a tale woven with magic thread.  A tapestry so rich and brave that you cannot look away.  So excruciating it almost doesn’t hit you until it does.  This is a story of what goes on behind closed doors, in parked cars, at the quiet corners of restaurants, and around kitchen tables.  In plain sight there are boundaries being crossed everywhere you look – if you care to look.

Vogel begins the journey in a parked car where two people, one an “older” man and one a teenage girl.  Without the actors touching each other, the portrait of sexual abuse reveals itself.  When the teenager, Li’l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker) calls a halt to is by saying, “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-” we become unmoored.  And we pretty much stay that way.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Uncle Peck (David Morse) is a quiet man who only takes action if other people want it so.  Variations on this theme are spoonfed to Li’l Bit over nearly a decade.  The splendid chorus, Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers surround these two characters like storm clouds maintaining the center where it is quiet and private.  There are mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers.  All noisy and cocooned in their rural wrappings. There is only one caution where Li’l Bit is told she will be responsible for whatever happens.  Advice is old school – “A girl with her skirts up can run faster than a man with his pants down.”  Li’l Bit is tossed about like a volley ball.

The only stead element in her life is Uncle Peck.  He treats her like a person, and that thoughtfulness sucks her into the vortex.  Vogel lays the story down like foot stones across a brook.  Just as Li’l Bit is pulled in, so are we all.  It is like watching a pileup in slow motion.  We cannot bear to look.  We cannot look away.

When Vogel pulls the train into the station for the last few minutes of the story, we are back where we began.  Sadder and wiser.

Perhaps the most impressive sleight of hand here is that Uncle Peck is written (and skillfully performed by Morse) as a regular guy who loves his niece.  Truly loves her.  And is beguiled by her at the same time.  He treads a razor’s edge, and when he falls off the edge, there is no recovery.

Because of Uncle Peck, Li’l Bit chooses to live life in her head as she grows up.  For her there is no recovery either.

So, one might ask, why bother going to see such a gloomy play?  When there is tragedy to be had by all, why do we have to bear witness?  Perhaps that is exactly the point – we bear witness.  The relationship between these two people is painted with such intimacy we feel like we are eavesdropping.  Each pushes the story forward, one step at a time.  Recklessness cannot be measured in centimeters.  What we bear witness to is our own strange paths.  This play is a mirror.  We are all survivors of our own making: broken and brave; remorseful and strong; battered and brilliant.  All driving with our pedals to the metal.

And not for nuthin’ but I cannot imagine these two actors in these roles 25 years ago – which is when it premiered at the Vineyard Theatre.  The seasoning of 25 years feels just right.

How I learned to Drive by Paula Vogel; directed by Mark Brokaw

WITH Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse, Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers
scenic Design by Rachel Hauck, Costume Design by Dede Ayite, Lighting Design by Mark McCullough
Through May 29, Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  TICKETS