Photograph: Joan Marcus
Li'l Bit--one of the two central characters in How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's funny, smart, deeply disturbing memory play currently in revival at Second Stage--comes of age in rural Maryland during the 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when the country stopped making much sense. This is fine, really, because Li'l Bit's immediate world doesn't make much sense, either. She is enormously intelligent, but seems only to be noticed and appreciated--by friends, acquaintances, and family members alike--for her particularly large breasts. Her mother and grandparents, with whom she lives, are uneducated and crass, and if her mother is not a full-fledged drunk, she has, at the very least, a complicated relationship with alcohol. Li'l Bit's entire family has serious boundary issues, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality; all of their nicknames for one another have something to do with genitalia, and nothing is considered off-limits during conversations at the dinner table. Li'l Bit's grandfather is an ignorant misogynist; her grandmother has internalized the most traditional of gender roles; and her mother is a little too forthright in offering Li'l Bit a more contemporary perspective. Li'l Bit has no father. Complicating matters is that her sister's husband, Uncle Peck--the only person who really seems to understand, connect with, and attempt to protect her as she grows up--can't keep his hands off her breasts. Many members of her family are aware of this, but they choose to keep their mouths shut, anyway.
How I Learned to Drive explores a number of dense, interconnected themes in following its angry, damaged narrator through a series of hazy childhood and adolescent reminiscences: the shifting mores of an embattled, rapidly changing country; family bonds and family dysfunction; gender roles; alcoholism and addiction; and the ways in which close relationships can simultaneously heal and destroy, weaken and empower. To say that I liked the play is something of an understatement: I felt positively cold about the play upon leaving the theater late last week, but it's wormed its way under my skin, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.
Like my fellow blogger Wendy, whose review of How I Learned to Drive appears here, I am not fully convinced about the structure of the show. But I think I'm getting close. I don't think Peck ever stops molesting his niece, and the jumbled way in which Vogel delivers bits and pieces of Li'l Bit's past works effectively in keeping the audience engaged and perpetually uncomfortable. Also, I am enormously compelled by the idea that one addiction can take the place of another. In How I Learned to Drive, Peck neatly substitutes alcohol for Li'l Bit; in turn, Li'l Bit learns to manipulate Peck in ways that suit her needs, all the while remaining his victim. One of the more fascinating aspects of the play is the clear-eyed way it depicts two people who are perfectly capable of simultaneously destroying and sustaining one another in a relationship that is at once disturbingly parasitic and yet weirdly understandable for its rules, structure, and mutual negotiations. This makes perfect sense to me: relationships are never as clear-cut as all that; there is often only a razor-thin line between a relationship that is healthy and one that is rotten to the core.
The cast is strong, but the show very clearly belongs to Norbert Leo Butz, whose portrayal of Peck, the benevolent, manipulative pederast, is superb. Much has been written about the lengthy, increasingly unsettling monologue during which Peck teaches a nephew how to fish for pompano; that, too, was a high point for me. But so was a much smaller, shorter scene, during which Li'l Bit, at age 13, strikes a bargain with her uncomfortably inebriated Uncle Peck: if he stops drinking, she will agree to visit with him, alone but in public, once a week. Butz's reaction to Reaser's suggestion is so deeply, movingly appreciated, so choked with conflicting emotions, that Peck's entire damaged, disturbed psyche flashed vividly before my eyes. The scene, simple as it was, took my breath away.
The ensemble, too, as Li'l Bit's friends, family members and various acquaintances, was uniformly strong. I was initially bothered by the fact that so many of the supporting characters are portrayed so two-dimensionally, while Peck is depicted in such sharp relief. But then again, I think that's precisely Vogel's point: Hazy memories play funny tricks on a person after a while.
I wish I could rave about Reaser. Don't get me wrong: she did a fine job as Li'l Bit, and her icy distance through the show can certainly be (and has been) interpreted as a strength. Li'l Bit was molested as a child, so why should the actor playing her as a grownup be warm, fuzzy, and approachable? Reaser is not, but her studied distance, which didn't let up through the show, did not always work for me. I am not sure if this was the function of the character or the woman playing her, but I was left feeling like I understood Peck far more than I did Li'l Bit, even though this was her show, her past, her conflicted, complicated youth.
That being said, I suppose leaving the theater wanting to know more about the characters you've just spent an evening with is not necessarily the worst criticism you can fling at the production of a play you just can't get away from.