How I Learned to Drive: Costly Lessons in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Winner
When Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winner How I learned to drive First opened near Broadway in 1997, the term “grooming” was still most often used to suggest taking care of one’s appearance and hygiene, or that of one’s pet. Times have changed, of course, and while the play itself seems prophetic in retrospect, its Broadway premiere – in a production starring original stars Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, and directed by original director Mark Brokaw – arrives, unfortunately, a little late.
Since #MeToo became a hashtag, condemnations of male predatory behavior have exploded in all facets of media and entertainment, from personal accounts to editorials and documentaries tied to specific celebrity predators. In recent weeks alone, Netflix has presented a series retracing a particularly notorious case, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story– a chilling depiction of how the beloved BBC radio and TV personality was exposed as a serial pedophile after his death – and another, Anatomy of a Scandalalso inspired by events across the Atlantic.
Conduct, on the other hand, is truly an American Horror Story, and its late arrival in no way diminishes Vogel’s achievement, nor the painful power of this staging, though the latter takes the form of slow pain rather than from a sharp puncture. Alternating back and forth in time, the playwright follows the twisted and tortured relationship between Parker’s Li’l Bit and his Uncle Peck, Morse’s character, who begins to have an unhealthy interest in his niece even before she leaves. reached his teens.
[Read David Finkle’s ★★★★★ review here.]
As Peck is also literally Li’l Bit’s driving instructor, Vogel uses sly automotive metaphors to transition (no pun intended) from scene to scene; they’re delivered by a “Greek chorus” of three actors who also juggle roles ranging from Li’l Bit’s teenage friends to his grandparents, mother, and aunt. If these secondary characters conjure up stereotypes — the nerdy boy at the school dance, the old lady who’s been with a man since she was 14 but thinks she’s got them all — they provide an ironic context for the trip troubled and are deftly played by Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers.
The fact that Gold and Myers in particular portray a range of ages benefits a production in which the lead actors are both 25 years older than they were when they pitched their roles. Vogel’s artful structure is not rigidly naturalistic, however, and Brokaw’s approach is lean enough to almost suggest a concert setting, framed by Rachel Hauck’s minimal set design.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Parker is that rare actress who has aged gracefully while remaining surprisingly well-preserved, or that her performance harnesses both the sardonic humor that Vogel weaves through this heartbreaking portrayal and the Li’l Bit’s underlying vulnerability. earliness. Morse, similarly, shows us humanity simultaneously burning and masking Peck’s monstrous behavior, while playing in a lower key: his low, soft voice, his sensitive and sometimes hesitant ways, the actor reveals his character both dangerously manipulative and deeply confrontational. , repulsive and pitiful.
While there is no excuse for the lasting damage Peck does to Li’l Bit, Vogel points out that such men rarely appear in the world as they do in news articles; it is precisely by integrating that they are able to do such irreparable harm. It is a valuable reminder, and however familiar the subject of How I learned to drive may seem now, the play and this production will haunt you.