A Look at How I Learned to Drive

I've read Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize winning play How I Learned to Drive and I've loved its storytelling prowess, its well-defined characters, its gripping range of emotions, but I've never had the chance to see a live production of it -- until now. My wife and I caught a matinee of it Saturday night at Second Stage Theatre with Elizabeth Reaser as Lil Bit and the spectacular Norbert Leo Butz (from Wicked, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Catch Me If You Can) as Uncle Peck. 

Vogel displays her incredible writing skills by taking a squeamish subject and making it an entertaining and enlightening character study, full of wit and power, while not shying away from the pain that drives the tale. Pardon my "driving" pun, but the metaphor Vogel uses to tell her coming of age story is well thought out and executed. Lil Bit learns how to drive a car from her aunt's husband, and ends up enduring his creepy advances while falling into a dangerous bond with him. It's a mesmerizing cautionary but life-affirming parable.

The role of Lil Bit is a tough one to play -- the character is one of the finest created, and any actress bringing her to life needs to capture both her youthful innocence and her more mature angst, a range from 11 years old to 40-something. Reaser (best known as Esme Cullen in the Twilight saga, but also from Grey's Anatomy and The Good Wife) is lucky to have such great material and handles it well. 

Its her complex relationship with Uncle Peck that anchors the show, and Butz does an exceptional job in his role as the troubled man. The story unfolds in nonlinear fashion, which is necessary to give the character some sense of sympathy rather than coming across as just a two-dimensional villain. As the scenes play out, we see the many facets of Peck -- we are given hints of his own trauma as a soldier and possibly as a victim of abuse in his own childhood; we see his loneliness, his addiction to alcohol; but we also see his chilling manipulation of an innocent girl and his descent into a desperate stalker and finally a broken, pathetic shell of a person. The ending is a shocker, even though all that came before makes it rather obvious -- nevertheless, it's still heartbreaking to see.  It makes Lil Bit's final lines of monologue all the more inspirational and heroic.

Vogel uses a Greek Chorus to move the tale along, played wonderfully by Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and especially Marnie Schulenburg -- all three bring multiple characters to life, sliding effortlessly into a variety of distinct roles to support the main leads.

The play is still in previews and officially opens on February 13. Tickets are on sale now.


Andrea Cuevas said…
Thanks for this insight! I was debating whether I wanted to go see the play or not, but now I definitely think I will.
I've also read it... But frankly I was not so much amazed by the writing done by Paula Vogel's
Nick said…
Andie, it's a really well-written play. It deserved its Pulitizer Prize.