Monday, May 2, 2022

Broadway Theater Review: How I Learned to Drive with Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse

David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

How I Learned to Drive
By Paula Vogel
Directed by Mike Brokaw
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
Through May 29 

By Lauren Yarger

25 years ago Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse created characters of a young woman coping with sexual abuse and the uncle who abuses her in Paula Vogels Pulitzer-Prize winning play, How I Learned to Drive. They reprise their roles in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway presentation which yields several truths:

  • the play is masterful and stands up over the years
  • good actors of any age are exciting on stage
  • nothing much in society has changed when it comes to issues of women being swept aside.

The play focuses on Li’l Bit (Parker) who is groomed over many years sexual abuse by her uncle Peck (Morse) to participate in the abuse and to wonder whether she has imagined most of it, or whether anything really was wrong with whatever really happened. Vogel Greek Choruses, Female (Johanna Day, who also was in the original cast a quarter of a century ago) Teenage (Alyssa May Gold) and Male (Chris Myers) with these actors playing multiple characters like young Li’l Bit, her mother, another abused child, etc. to tell the story through non-linear memories and present occurrences. 

The audience, hopefully more savvy nowadays about abuse and grooming (a term not even used when the play premiered at the Vineyard Off Broadway), doesn’t have much doubt that Li’l Bit indeed has been abused. The question to be answered is for how long. 

Family nicknames have been assigned in reference to body parts and gatherings around the kitchen table  -- titled “On Men, Sex, and Women”-- are peppered with sexually charged innuendos. Li’l Bit’s mother refuses to hear her little girl’s fears about being sent on a road trip alone with Uncle Peck. The family laughs off his disdain for his wife. His wife shrugs off her growing concerns that something is going on between her husband and his niece downstairs in his dark room. Her solution is to wait for Li’l Bit to go off to school so she can have her husband back. 

Many of Li’l Bit’s memories are of the driving lessons her uncle gave her. He’s always clear that when the lessons start shifting from cars to sexual activity he won’t do anything he doesn’t want her to do. He’ll stop drinking if she just spends time with him, too. Each promise puts the responsibility on his under-age niece, who begins to question if what they are doing is right. 

“Have I forced you to do anything?” Peck asks?

 “I guess not,” Li’l Bit answers.

 Peck, operating in his own reality, convinces himself that he has a future with his niece once she turns 18. Li’l turns to alcohol and flunks out of school, but starts to recognize her uncle’s obsession with her as unhealthy. 

Original Director Sam Gold ably directs the performances and transitions in time, crucial to the storytelling. Vogel’s genius decision to tell the story in fractured memories keeps an element of doubt creeping throughout the story – much like Li’l Bit has herself. The story plays out on Rachel Hauk’s wisely sparce set (chairs double as the car seats) with other design elements contributing to the mood Mark McCullough (lighting design), David Van Tieghem (original music and sound design).

The fact that this play is as fresh and topical today as it was 25 years ago is upsetting. The “boys will be boys” and “women really want it” mentality is a close as your morning newspaper. And why did Broadway wait 25 years to produce the work of a Pulitzer-Prize winning author? That answer is easy. Because she is a woman and women, especially those over 40, are pretty much ignored. Just call us Li’l Bit. 

How I Learned to Drive cruises along at 1:40 with no intermission. It is parked through May 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th S., NYC. 

Additional credit:

Deborah Hecht (dialect coach)


FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:

-- This is a mature-theme play, Think PG 13

-- God's name taken in vain

-- Suggestive dialogue

-- Pedophilia

-- Sexual abuse

COVID PROTOCOLS:

Proof of vaccination and a valid ID will be required to enter the theatre. Masks must be worn at all times. For more specific information go to: manhattantheatreclub.com/protocols


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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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