- How I Learned to Drive
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Playwright Paula Vogel tends to select sensitive, difficult, fraught issues to theatricalize, and to spin them with a dramaturgy that’s at once creative, highly imaginative, and brutally honest. In How I Learned to Drive—which won the 1997 Drama Desk Award for Best Play and several Obie Awards—Vogel’s conceits remain personal, political, and highly theatrical. In a nonlinear narrative, Li’l Bit (Mary Louise Parker) tries to understand her relationship with her Uncle Peck (David Morse), whose driving lessons taught her as much about gender relations and her own sexuality as they did about the proper use of rearview mirrors, gearshifts, and turn signals.
Driving becomes the action that evokes Li’l Bit’s memories; driving metaphors chart Li’l Bit’s growth into automotive mastery and sexual mystery, punctuating the play’s movement back and forth in time. Sitting in straightbacked chairs on a nearly bare set, Morse and Parker evoke the car rides that shape and intertwine their lives. Mark Brokaw’s crisp, unsparing direction allows them to craft the scene with gesture and light, leaving the production unencumbered by more than minimal props and set pieces. The sparse set is framed by a map of Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s, when the play’s first memories occur. The geographical snippets, covered with interstates, route numbers, town names, and zip codes that move in and out of sight, remind spectators how difficult it is to truly map the territory of relationships, sexuality, and desire.
Vogel’s choice to remember Li’l Bit and Peck’s relationship nonchronologically illustrates its complexity, and allows the playwright to build sympathy for a man who might otherwise be despised and dismissed as a child molester. As played with affable gentility and gentleness by Morse, Peck is charming, kind, and sympathetic, a man driven toward children by his own demons but attentive to Li’l Bit’s adolescent needs in ways that are never violent, paternalistic, or condescending. Peck takes the young woman seriously, and she takes great pleasure from believing that she helps him emotionally. Vogel paints their relationship as flirtatious and sexual, but also as a careful balance of power between Peck’s adult desires and Li’l Bit’s inchoate, exploratory impulses. Parker’s lithe, erotic performance captures in subtle gestures and in postures weighted with ambivalence and desire the pleasure Li’l Bit takes in the power of saying no while her body urges her to say yes. The attraction between them becomes more urgent and mutual as the play progresses, along with Li’l Bit’s knowledge that the relationship is not right. Li’l Bit’s isolation in the face of strong emotions she can not understand is palpable; Parker’s virtuosic performance illustrates the nuances of Li’l Bit’s desire and loathing for a man who taught her so much and could finally give her so little.
Vogel builds the relationship in scenes sculpted with spare efficiency by Brokaw that crystallize moments of trust, disappointment, longing, and desire. When Peck’s loneliness grips him, a very young Li’l Bit offers solace with weekly outings that are as much about companionship as they come to be about sex or driving lessons. Later, Peck photographs Li’l Bit in his basement studio, and although it’s clear his motives are not pure, the experience instills in Li’l Bit a sense of her own allure, a glimpse of a budding sexuality that’s powerful to her in a family life in which she is otherwise naive and powerless. Peck takes her to dinner at a sophisticated restaurant out of town when she passes her driving test. Under the disapproving eye of a sanctimonious waiter, Li’l Bit drinks martinis while one of...