Can compassion and understanding coincide with anger and resentment? L’il Bit (Mary Louise Parker) thinks so. For someone who’s endured years of sexual abuse from her Uncle Peck (David Morse), we have it on good authority.
Incest and pedophilia, two of society’s most challenging topics, are beautifully tackled head-on in How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer prize winning play. It’s currently being revived on Broadway, intact with three of its original stars (Parker, Morse, and Tony nominee Johanna Day). Mark Brokaw has returned to delicately direct a work that seems even more important now than it did when it premiered 25 years ago.
Vogel’s memory play takes us to the 1969 agricultural suburbs of Maryland. Our narrator, L’il Bit is now 17 and for years, she’s been the object of improper affection by Peck. As it unfolds, we are presented-out of chronological order-with events recalled by our narrator from her pre-teen years to adulthood. Vogel’s use of the time-jumping device is clever for two reasons: First, it creates a sense of slight confusion, mirroring the disorienting nature of sexual abuse and second, it allows for a seemingly more natural, spontaneous memories.
Actors Alyssa May Gold, Chris Myers, and Day comprise the “Greek Chorus”, essentially portraying members of Lil Bit’s family. Stage veteran Day offers some much-needed moments of levity, particularly in her speech entitled, “A mother’s guide to social drinking.”
Parker and Morse firmly anchor this work. It’s clear that have each other’s complete trust and avoid manipulative or gratuitous action. In less skilled hands this could become sappy melodrama. Thanks to our leads and toVogel, we have none of that. What we do have is full vulnerability and an ability to empathize with everyone in this deeply flawed family.
Like many disorders, we know much more now about pedophilia than we did in 1997. Earlier this year, USA Today published an article in which James Cantor, a clinical psychologist and sex researcher revealed “evidence suggesting that it is inborn. It’s neurological.”
This is, in no way, meant to minimize or negate the toll that is taken by the victim. The physical, emotional, and mental damage that this behavior imparts is unconscionable. But understanding is different from condoning, an idea that is warmly embraced here. Furthermore, we are blind to ourselves not to recognize that abuse to anyone constitutes a societal crisis to everyone.
How I Learned to Drive is more intellectual than emotional Sit with it, however, and you’ll be surprised by how affecting it truly is. In an era where individuals are crucified by the masses for a single mistaken word, phrase, or action, it’s a reward for the soul to witness such a complex story, rich with nuance and humanity.
How I Learned to Drive is now playing on Broadway at Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 W. 47th Street between 8th and Broadway). For tickets and information, click here .