What an impression Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive made at the Vineyard Theatre in 1997! I was in college still when I saw it, but even then it was clear to me that this was something special, something inspired. Mary-Louise Parker gave the performance of her life as Li’l Bit, a smart, vulnerable young girl who gets caught up in a destructive, abusive relationship with her Uncle Peck, played by David Morse. Parker’s deadpan emotional immediacy on stage was at its absolute height at this point, and she was matched all the way by Morse, who seemed like a passively disturbed giant touched by the worst trauma and unable to control himself. Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for her play, and it was richly deserved. This is her magnum opus, a work that feels intuitive and exploratory yet tightly controlled, fair and compassionate but also deeply unforgiving, understanding of the flux of sexual needs and roles yet stunned by what some women have to deal with.
Part of the triumph of that original Vineyard production was its intimacy, the sense that you were in the car with Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, uncomfortably close to their hurts and evasions, and that sense is totally lost in this revival of the play at Second Stage (through March 18), where the stage and setting are so spacious that it feels like Li’l Bit could escape her uncle and her family by just moving far enough away from them. As Li’l Bit, Elizabeth Reaser is far too caught up in clichéd childlike behavior whenever her character is meant to be 13 or 11, whereas Parker only made the slightest visible age adjustments; when Parker’s Li’l Bit got abused, it carried a deeper sting because this girl was acting so grown-up already yet still clearly wasn’t able to deal with what was happening to her. As delivered by Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Uncle Peck here, Vogel’s monologues sometimes seem a tad stiff and literary, like a tough-minded short story being read to us, but How I Learned to Drive is the kind of play that is so strongly plotted and structured that it still comes through even in less than ideal circumstances. It’s a play that deserves to be revived, but I doubt that 15 years later anyone will be able to recall specific moments in this production, whereas I will never forget Parker’s enraged, sour helplessness in the hotel room scene where she tried to break free of her uncle’s love for her, or the revelation of how early the abuse started and how tender Morse’s face looked while he did something unforgivable in his last scene. This production is decent, but sometimes you just need to be there in a certain theater with a certain cast in a certain year, up close in an intimate space where there is nowhere to escape.