It is difficult to write of something which everybody feels they know everything about. How do you take a story about pedophilia and make it nuanced, new and compelling? Paula Vogel did it with How I Learned To Drive, earning a Pultizer Prize (1998) for her effort. The writing is so exquisite, it’s difficult to imagine a production faltering. Yet, the first major revival of any play of importance stirs apprehension. Could anyone match David Morse’s unique blend of innocent man child and demonic predator? His presence is so distinct, that having never seen the (1997) original, I still could visualize him on the stage. (Morse, is only rivaled in innocuous/sinister duality, by a young Richard Masur.)
However there is absolutely nothing to fear with this revival (except for the evils that lurk inside families) it is remarkable. Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) every layer of human struggle and motivation is gently exposed. Whoriskey is no stranger to coaxing out the beauty behind the ugliness. While there is much humor in this play, it is never at anyone’s expense. The characters are realistically complex without donning a sandwich board which says so. There is a delicacy and a subtlety often found in real life but rarely in its portrayal.
The story, told in flashback and with a wonderful Greek chorus, is that of an uncle’s molestation of his niece (Li’l Bit) over the course of years. The metaphor, and actuality of driving lessons works as an effective device in moving the story. Using flashbacks allows us to develop feelings for the characters before we have to witness the actual horror of what they’ve done. Towards the very end of the play, we discover how this could have happened, and there are no surprises. But as is often the case with victimization, we need to know, and to hear it from the characters themselves.
Norbet Leo Butz (Catch Me If You Can, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is simply remarkable as Uncle Peck. He is vulnerable, ingratiating, and deeply troubled. We never see him interacting with adults, but suspect that he can’t. His niece (Elizabeth Reaser) is saddled with early puberty, an unorthodox household and the 1960s. Reaser is new to the stage and it showed when she first appeared all alone on the stage (she needs a little work on her enunciation and projection.) She quickly finds her groove however, and is quite convincing at every age (27,18,17,13,11.)
The Greek chorus adds so much to this play that could feel quite insular. Jennifer Regan, Kevin Cahoon, and Marnie Schulenburg, take on the role of family members, an actual chorus, and a waiter. Ms. Regan is mesmerizing. No doubt she tires of being compared to a young Carol Burnett, but I can think of no higher compliment.
The set (Derek McLane) and setting (Second Stage Theatre) are simply spot on. There is a ’57 Ford upstage, some street lights, and a few rolling pieces of furniture on stage. The lighting design (Peter Kaczorowski) conjures time and place. The house size and design are perfect for reinforcing the intimacy and insulation.
This is a play, and production which linger, and should.