Like any other award, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is not always a 100 percent accurate indicator of superior quality or the “best” of a particular year. I won’t name any of the winners that I consider questionable, but if you’ll peruse the list of plays (and, occasionally, musicals) that have received the award over the years, I’m sure you’ll find some head scratchers. However, the Pulitzer committee sure got it right in 1998, when the honor went to Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive.
The play is narrated by the central character, L’il Bit, and the action unfolds in a series of flashbacks that depict her complicated relationship with her Uncle Peck, who had sexually molested her at age 11 and behaved inappropriately towards her until she finally severed their relationship when she reached adulthood. The roles of L’il Bit and Peck were indelibly created by Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse in the 1997 world premiere production at the Vineyard Theatre, and they’re now being played equally well by Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz in a first-rate revival at Second Stage.
One of the most fascinating things about How I Learned to Drive is that Vogel doesn’t paint Peck as a monster. Rather, he’s a three-dimensional character — emotionally damaged by traumatic experiences in military combat, now a recovering alcoholic who truly loves his niece but who expresses that love in a way that’s unacceptable because of her tender age and their family relationship. We also learn from the adult “L’il Bit” that she and her uncle are the products of a highly sexualized family dynamic in which everyone’s nickname was a comment on his/her primary or secondary sexual characteristics. So it’s no surprise that, in some of the flashbacks, we see the pre-teen L’il Bit behaving towards Peck in a highly seductive manner, whether consciously or not.
In other words, this is no sensationalistic, movie-of-the-week-type script with innocence and evil clearly defined in black and white terms. On the contrary, it’s an intelligent, moving, nuanced tale of flawed, troubled people doing their best to get through life and find some sort of happiness. The Second Stage production is skillfully directed by Kate Whoriskey and boasts a simple, effective unit set design by Derek McLane. Lending unstinting support to Reaser and Butz as the play’s “Greek Chorus” members are Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and Marnie Schulenberg, all three of whom expertly limn multiple roles including the other members of the dysfunctional, rural Maryland clan to which L’il Bit and her uncle belong.
Second Stage is one of New York City’s finest theater companies, and this superb revival of a great play is right in line with its tradition of excellence. But don’t take my word for it; please go and see for yourself.