A third of the way into Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, our protagonist, Li’l Bit (Mary Louise-Parker), is listening to her grandfather (Chris Myers), who brags, “I picked your grandmother out of that herd of sisters just like a lion chooses the gazelle.” He is proud to identify with the predator, and his wife (Alyssa May Gold), her grandmother, bolsters this image with chitchat about his virility: “Your grandfather is just a big bull … Every morning, every evening.” Mom (Johanna Day) does her part, too, and whispers to Li’l Bit, “And he used to come home for lunch every day.”
So that’s Li’l Bit’s grandfather. And that’s her grandmother, too, who is ready to apologize for her grandfather’s behavior. When mom points out that grandma still believed in Santa Claus when she got married, she shouts, “It was legal, what Daddy and I did! I was fourteen, and in those days, fourteen was a grown-up woman.”
How I Learned to Drive casts doubts on the truth of this statement, but the play is more concerned with Uncle Peck (David Morse), who is a subtler lion. He washes the dishes, for example, even though other men do not. He helps his neighbors jump-start their cars or shovel their sidewalks. He is a thoughtful intermediary between teenagers and adults. But from age eleven, and often under the guise of giving her driving lessons, he abuses Li’l Bit. By the time she is in college, Peck is sending letters and presents and counting down the days until she reaches the age of legal consent.
As with Li’l Bit’s grandfather, Peck is enabled by those around him. Right before the first assault, her mother tells her, “I don’t like the way your uncle looks at you,” then lets her spend seven hours alone in the car with him. Peck’s wife (Day) is aware of their relationship, but she blames her niece: “She’s twisted Peck around her little finger.” Meanwhile, Li’l Bit is left to navigate childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood without addressing her trauma.
I suppose the main achievement of How I Learned to Drive is its empathy. Vogel’s Peck is no villain. Granted, we watch his long-term abuse of his niece, and we hear the calculation, the premeditation in his speech. He tells her, “Nothing is going to happen until you want it to,” and he promises never to cross “the line,” while in each encounter, he pushes against that line, eroding it through wear and tear. This false sense of choice is offered metaphorical expression during one of their lessons: “I’m teaching you on a manual,” he says, “Manual gives you control.”
Still, there is no apparent malice in Peck. Vogel hints that he, too, may have been a victim of sexual assault, or may have experienced trauma in the war, or both. There could be some truth to his wife’s claim that he’s “swimming against the tide,” meaning he and Li’l Bit are trapped by the same cycle of abuse. In a late, disturbing scene, when she is an adult, Li’l Bit sleeps with an eager, high school virgin. “Oh—this is the allure,” she apostrophizes to Peck, “Being the translator, the teacher, the epicure.” And Peck has a beautiful moment with an unseen Cousin Bobby, who cries when they catch a fish. In response, Peck is—for a moment, at least—tender, understanding, and without pretense. “You’re just real sensitive, and I think that’s wonderful at your age,” he tells Bobby. We are none of us all one thing.
In the current production by Manhattan Theatre Club, Parker and Morse are reviving roles they originated twenty-five years ago. The difference between the ages of the actors and the ages of their characters are no doubt more dramatic now, and I’m not sure the casting serves the text. Though Morse embodies Peck with a gruff and muted sadness, and though Parker seamlessly embodies a teenager—her tone and facial expressions are spot-on—there is a superficiality to their relationship onstage. At the performance I attended, much of their dialogue was greeted with laughter, even lines that are not written as comedy. Toward the end of the play, Peck explains his problem like this: there are people who have a fire in their belly, and there are people who have a fire in their head. Li’l Bit is the latter. Then, there are people like Peck. “I have a fire in my heart,” he explains. Unfortunately, that fire was missing in this production.