In 1997, an unlikely play became a hot ticket Off-Broadway: the poignant, provocative, and at times very funny story of a woman who was sexually abused by her uncle in childhood and adolescence. Twenty-five years later, a revival confirms it as a peerless lesson on accountability for abuse and its aftermath—and on theater’s potential role in this work.
Talk to someone who caught Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse in the original production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and you might elicit an involuntary gesture: widened eyes, a hand to chest, the sign of an intense theatrical experience living on in the body. In fact, the play’s visceral impact on audiences was clear from the start. Parker recalls in a recent interview that “people were rattled,” while Morse remembers “the numbers of people who couldn’t leave after the show because they needed company.” The play went on to win the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has since been seen around the country and the world. Yet if its author claims in the same interview to have “really imprinted” on that first cast, so, it seems, did many others.
Which is why it was so remarkable that Parker and Morse reunited for How I Learned to Drive’s Broadway revival this spring. The play lends itself to this producorial coup because Parker’s character, Li’l Bit, narrates the action from the distance of her present-day adulthood, transforming into younger versions of herself in memory scenes throughout the play. The obvious gap between the adult actor and her past selves calls to mind Tony Kushner on theatrical illusion: “It’s ok if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do.” From a story-telling perspective, then, it’s perfectly intuitive for adult Li’l Bit to be cast in her late fifties, the age Parker is now. But ever since the announcement of the Broadway production (which was weeks away from opening in March 2020 when it was paused for two years due to the pandemic), I’ve wondered: how would this re-casting feel?
As it turns out, still shattering. Parker’s singular combination of intelligence and childishness here makes Li’l Bit’s appeal to Peck plain, even as it hints, in the present tense scenes, at the lingering effects of her trauma. As always, her vulnerability is profound. See: how swiftly Li’l Bit’s face falls open; see also: how her slantwise glances and occasional twitches of discomfort belie her confident languor and drawl. Morse is no less astonishing as he communicates strategic patience in service of need. Were it not so simultaneously chilling I could have watched his tender pantomime of fishing with Cousin Bobby, foreshadowing his abuse of another child, go on for hours. In different registers—Parker alternately eager and wary; Morse smooth until he isn’t—their interpretations of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck brim with longing.
If these performances don’t crackle against one another with what I take to have been the sheer electricity of the first production, in truth they couldn’t possibly. The actors know too much—about the play, themselves, each other; the story has lived in their bones for too long. By this I mean no criticism. I can’t remember the last time I was in the theatrical presence of two actors more palpably at ease with one another. And this connection serves the story in a different, vital way: Li’l Bit and Peck are people who think—each for their own reasons—that they might have known each other in a past life. The current production convinces me that they must have, even if that knowledge spares them no heartache in this one.
Every theatrical revival faces the questions “Why this story? Why now?” Without a doubt timely, Vogel’s play is spiked with fresh heartbreak in light of the past half-decade of #MeToo declarations and legal crackdowns on women’s autonomy. It is furthermore about time for this major feminist play to reach Broadway. But How I Learned to Drive also plays with time: the lifetime of its protagonist, Li’l Bit. And doubling down on theater’s overdetermined function as a site for repetition—in which performances can be rehearsed for weeks, then given night after night—the revival’s re-casting of the original leads offers Li’l Bit an unusual way to act out her traumatic past.
The magic trick of Vogel’s drama, which she has only recently acknowledged to be autobiographical, is that, against all odds, adult Li’l Bit is intact—enough—in the present. As the play’s opening line suggests, however, she still needs to “teach a lesson,” and not only to the audience she addresses with these words, but to herself. With Parker now in her fifties, rather than her mid-thirties, we better understand that certain lessons must be rehearsed the whole duration of our lives. The revival’s casting also amplifies the play’s own reminder that, in the theater, the rehearsal of trauma can be generative rather than melancholic: each communal working-through a chance for more nuance, more grace.
The ancient roots of this idea are invoked by the play’s so-called “Greek Chorus,” three supporting actors who play various combinations of Li’l Bit’s family and classmates. Many of their scenes involve elaborate jokes at the expense of Li’l Bit and her large breasts. Skittering in these exchanges between bewilderment, frustration, and anger, Parker relays how Li’l Bit is made to feel both defenseless and culpable by others’ reactions to her body. Audiences must wait until the end of the play to learn that this wasn’t always the case.“If anything happens, I hold you responsible,” Female Greek Chorus as Li’l Bit’s mother says when her child is eleven, pleading to take a road trip alone with her uncle. “Mother! It’s in your head!” the assured Li’l Bit cries. “Nothing will happen! I can take care of myself. And I can certainly handle Uncle Peck.” Mere lines later, in a scene titled “The First Driving Lesson,” Peck assaults her for the first time.
Vogel has said that “In this play I have one thing I insist on: as much as humanly possible, that the production try to make us in some way love Peck. That’s the only thing I say is important to me.” This insistence introduces a critical perspective to contemporary conversations about abusive figures. It complicates any reflexive notion that people like Peck should be erased from our midst by observing that, in short, they can’t be. That is to say: by today’s standards, Li’l Bit “cancels” Peck with impressive effectiveness, extracting herself from his attentions at age 18 and leaving him to drink himself to death soon thereafter. As the play shows us, though, she can’t erase him from herself.
The final scene makes what might be called a dramaturgical haunting, one built into the structure of the play, even more evident at the level of narrative. As adult Li’l Bit delivers her hard-won closing speech about the pleasures of a solo drive, the stage directions indicate that “a faint light strikes the spirit of Uncle Peck, who is sitting in the backseat of her car.” Every production must handle this moment according to its own inner logic. But here’s what the next line of the script reads: “She sees him in the mirror. She smiles at him, and he nods at her. They are happy to be going for a long drive together.”
Better than any play I know, How I Learned to Drive conveys the commonplace and in some cases devastating reality that we continue to live with those who hurt us. And it makes the radical argument that the particular story that enables Li’l Bit to go on after Peck is the one in which she sees him fully. First and foremost, this means seeing him as the one who seduced her: as the play finally reveals, the abuse began when Li’l Bit was indisputably a child. But it also means seeing him as gentle, generous, invested, wise, someone it made sense for her to trust, even to want. She loved him—of course she did. How could she not? In the play’s first incarnation, audiences were shocked to discover Peck rendered loveable, which some feared forgave him the abuse he committed. The current production makes it clear that Li’l Bit rehearses love for Peck in order to forgive herself; in order to teach herself that she was not, as her mother warned, “responsible.” Simply put, Peck’s humanity is central to this story not for his sake, but for hers.
By underscoring the direction in which the play’s forgiveness runs, this production reminds me how ingeniously Vogel flaunts the rules of Greek tragedy. In ancient drama, the protagonist typically suffered something called anagnorisis: a brutal reckoning with the ill effects of his actions. Via the proxy reflections of the bystander Chorus, viewers experienced catharsis as they purged the bad feelings brought on by the hero’s disaster. Whereas the same catharsis was not historically given to the tragedy’s protagonist, Vogel’s memory play-within-a-play flips the script by making Li’l Bit audience to her own lesson.
In so doing, How I Learned to Drive spares Li’l Bit the agony of anagnorisis and instead grants her catharsis. But it denies catharsis to the audience, because in this play our Chorus stand-ins are active agents of the tragedy. And the reckoning they fail to perform becomes ours to complete. There’s no relief in saying it: if Li’l Bit isn’t responsible for the crimes against her, we are.
Kyle C. Frisina: Everything on repeat.
An Assistant Professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross, Kyle produced the first Off-Broadway revival of How I Learned to Drive in 2012 while serving as director of play development at Second Stage Theater.
Lead Image: David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker in Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2022 revival of How I Learned to Drive (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux). Permission from New York Times/Redux.
Body Image: Morse and Parker in the play’s 1997 world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre (Carol Rosegg). Permission from photographer.