“How I Learned to Drive,” Paula Vogel’s family album of a play, holds some dark secrets that are revealed with progressively vivid flashbacks and acted with a disturbing sense of keyhole intimacy.
The narrative spans 20 years in the life of Li’l Bit (Mary-Louise Parker), an impressionable, fatherless girl who has come to trust her doting Uncle Peck (David Morse). Driving instruction is not the only way for Peck to pursue his incestuous longings; there are also secretive basement photo shoots in which the patient and ever lecherous uncle fondles and nuzzles his niece, counting down the months and days to Li’l Bit’s 18th birthday and his pitiful, final seductive assault.
With subtle humor and teasing erotic encounters, Vogel addresses the dangerous intersections of teenage temptation. She also paints a richly poetic and picturesque landscape, as Li’l Bit describes the exhilaration of “driving past trees, churches and battlefields before the malls took over, and the smell of clover mixing with dashboard leather.”
Secondary performers serve as various family members, with Johanna Day offering an amusing dissertation on what drinks young ladies should shun to prevent the advances of older men. “Avoid little umbrellas, anything with sugar,” the parent warns, “and any drink which suggests a sexual position, like the Missionary.”
The play is a potent and convincing comment on a taboo subject, and its impact sneaks up on its audience.
As the trusted family member and aging pedophile, Morse creates a tragic, rather than chilling, figure; his cool and casual sincerity is all the more frightening. Parker provides an expressive range, from the cautious, manipulated teen to a mature but permanently scarred college student.
Mark Brokaw’s fluent staging and a defining light design by Mark McCullough assist the players on an amply spacious stage, which provides the terrain for restaurants and hotel.
How I Learned to Drive
Vineyard Theatre, New York; 120 seats; $30 top
A Vineyard Theater presentation of a play in one act by Paula Vogel. Directed by Mark Brokaw.
Set, Narelle Sissons; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, David Van Tieghem; stage manager, Thea Bradshaw Gilles. Artistic director, Douglas Aibel. Opened March 16, 1997. Reviewed March 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.
Cast: Mary-Louise Parker (Li'l Bit), David Morse (Peck), Michael Showalter, Johanna Day, Kerry O'Malley (Greek Chorus).