Middle America In Caps: How I Learned to Drive Comes to Broadway (for Parterre Box)

Cameron Kelsall: When it comes to theater, you can go home again. Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive proves that adage doubly true. The 1997 memory play, a spiritual cousin to The Glass Menagerie, chronicles the traumatic but formative sexual awakening of a young woman in the mid-twentieth century, provocatively nicknamed Li’l Bit. (More on that later.) The structure of the story exists out of time, jumping back and forth from an implied present to a sympathetically rendered yet unromanticized past. It won Vogel the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—yet despite a healthy downtown run, it never made it to Broadway during its first flush. Manhattan Theatre Club is finally hosting the Main Stem premiere, 25 years later, and everything old is new again. In addition to hiring the original director, Mark Brokaw, the current staging reunites three of the original production’s lauded stars: Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse and Johanna Day. Needless to say, there are ways in which time has not stood still. How would the play come across when the text and the cast have a quarter-century of mileage under their wheels? Pretty damn well, it turns out.

David Fox: Yes, let’s start with the play. I was aware of it when it premiered, of course—in fact, a couple of my smartest students at that time were great admirers of it—but inexplicably, I had  not seen it till now. Kudos to Manhattan Theatre Club for bringing it back, which could not have been an easy choice. I’m not even thinking of COVID, which of course played its role in delaying the show’s return. Rather, it’s an issue of how much more of a flash point the subject of child molestation has become as we are more aware of it. Vogel has acknowledged the influence here of Nabokov’s Lolita, a brilliant work that I’ll bet has been dropped from many, many reading lists in the last few years. As we entered the Friedman Theatre, I wondered if there might indeed be a demonstration of some kind. But no—the audience was largely silent and clearly enrapt. It was a fitting reaction to one of a small number of genuinely great American plays of the last quarter century—and one whose stature has only grown with the passing years. To be clear from the start: Vogel is unequivocally critical of Uncle Peck’s predatory sexual abuse of Li’l Bit, who is not only a child, but also his niece. The years over which it occurred are seen as a prolonged and devastating period from which neither will completely recover. Yet in Vogel’s beautiful writing, How I Learned to Drive has wry humor, and even more astonishingly, compassion…

Click here to read the full review at Parterre Box.

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