It’s rare to encounter the kind of breathless silence I experienced during an unnerving hotel room scene in the unforgettable revival of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.”
On the night I saw the production, hundreds of audience members listened with rapt attention — I didn’t hear anyone unwrap a mint or fumble for a tissue. I didn’t even hear a whisper break the stillness in the air. There was just the steady buzz of the lights, suddenly deafeningly loud, as if they were performing their own monologue.
If I could direct a scene representing why I love theater, it would look something like this: Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse delivering crushing performances — both sentimental and horrific, utterly complex — of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play to an enthralled audience.
That the performances were so palpable, at least, wasn’t a surprise; the two already had the play in their bones, having originated the roles Off Broadway in 1997. Mark Brokaw, who directed them 25 years ago, and the actress Johanna Day, have also returned for this overdue Broadway debut.
In this 100-minute memory play, which opened Tuesday in a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, a woman we know only as Li’l Bit (Parker), her childhood nickname, guides us through nonchronological flashbacks of her driving lessons, which double as reflections on her relationship with her instructor, her doting Uncle Peck (Morse). Except her doting uncle is actually a pedophile who begins grooming his niece when she’s 11.
Many of the scenes, predictably, take place in cars, but Rachel Hauck’s understated scenic design doesn’t have the upholstered car seats and steering wheel of, say, the Off Broadway road-trip dramedy “Georgia Mertching Is Dead.” Parker and Morse sit side by side facing the audience in retro dining chairs; through many scenes, including ones where they’re supposed to be kissing or touching, they remain seated and looking at the audience while their dialogue and gestures fill in the blanks. Telephone poles evoke the open roads in and beyond Li’l Bit’s rural Maryland home, and Mark McCullough’s vivid lighting design, from the cool lapis of the early evening to the prismatic splay of teal, turquoise and rose pink that coyly suggests sunset, are the clearest signifiers of the production’s shifting settings and tones.
Vogel’s script creates its own piercing language for assault, harassment and all the ways our society reinforces regressive ideas about gender, sex and consent. The play is structured as an intimate collection of memories roughly organized around a set of rules about the basics of driving, as if someone had sneaked in a series of watercolor portraits between the pages of a driver’s manual. So the warnings about idling and using the reverse gear, which function as clever subtitles announcing the scenes, become subtly tied to the ways Li’l Bit fits those years of assault into her memory.
A few scenes about Li’l Bit’s interactions with her family and peers — gawking or jeering at her busty pubescent figure — reveal how even our friends and loved ones can be complicit, to small and large degrees, in the ways women and girls are denied agency over their bodies.
And yet “How I Learned to Drive” is also funny. The play doesn’t sink with the gravity of its subject matter; it finds moments of levity without minimizing the tragic parts of the story. Occasionally, however, Brokaw doesn’t have the lightest touch with the production’s comedy and often fails to give the more stirring scenes the extra beat they require before things move along.
It’s a bit unfair to compare the rest of the cast’s performances to those of Parker’s and Morse’s, who, in these roles, would overshadow even some beloved stage veterans. But Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers adeptly fit into the roles of ancillary characters in Li’l Bit’s memories — as long as they’re close to the actors’ actual ages. The script calls for two younger actors to play Li’l Bit’s classmates and also, in a sly subversion, her grandparents, but Gold and Myers make stiff impersonations of elders. And Day is at her best when she embodies Li’l Bit’s mother and Aunt Mary. With a set mouth and hands tidily folded in her lap, Day delivers a vicious yet contained performance as Mary reflecting on her husband’s relationship with her niece.
My working theory is that the Friedman has a fountain of youth stashed somewhere backstage; I don’t have another explanation for Parker’s agelessness. She’s a knowing adult reflecting on the sexual abuse she endured, a shrinking child, a coquettish yet whip-smart 17 year old; Parker acts her way through decades of Li’l Bit’s trauma with astute choreography. Li’l Bit hunches and shuffles self-consciously or ambles around with loose, swinging limbs — every physicality a statement on her relationship to her body. At her most vulnerable she seems to fold into herself like a work of origami, hinging at the waist, tucking a bent knee beneath her, clutching her legs to her chest.
Morse’s performance brings out one of the many successes of the script: Vogel allows us to empathize with a despicable character without condoning his actions. Morse gives a similarly empathic performance; his Uncle Peck is sweet and broken, a Southern gentleman and ex-Marine with unresolved trauma, but the occasional hints of sharpness or supplication in his voice reveal how predatory he really is. In one scene, in which Peck teaches an unseen young cousin how to fish, Morse’s carefully calculated portrayal is its own minute brand of seduction — Morse invites the audience to fall under his character’s spell.
I wish I could have seen Parker and Morse 25 years ago, first stepping into these roles. I would have liked to have been in the audience of unsuspecting people who may have crossed the threshold of the theater not knowing what to expect — not knowing they’d paid to see a searing tale of sexuality and abuse. I wonder how the air in the room moved the first time Parker and Morse sat onstage, the first time Peck asked, from the Buick parked in a dark lane on an early summer night, to unbutton his niece’s shirt. Would I have met the same awed silence?
How I Learned to Drive
Through May 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.