“How I Learned to Drive,” which won Paula Vogel the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 (and hasn’t been seen in New York since), is one of those plays you don’t forget in a hurry. Show not only holds up in this Second Stage revival, it still packs an emotional wallop. Playing outside their comfort zones, Elizabeth Reaser (“Twilight,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Norbert Leo Butz (two-time Tony winner for “Catch Me If You Can” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) sensitively establish the intense, if unhealthy rapport between a sympathetic pedophile and the niece who learns more than she needs to know from him.
Surreal production style delineated by helmer Kate Whoriskey (“Ruined”) instantly identifies the piece as an expressionistic memory play. The sky is very blue, the setting is very bare (except for the vintage Buick sitting in the middle of the stage), and the secondary characters who make up the so-designated Greek Chorus are garishly costumed and portrayed as clownish caricatures. (Not such a good idea, that one.)
The memories that are brought to life are those of the narrator, Li’l Bit (Reaser), a grown woman looking back on her white-trash family and rural upbringing in Maryland in the 1960s and ’70s. Vogel has purposely scrambled the chronology of events to reflect the mysterious way that memories work, so it’s never clear at the top of a scene whether Li’l Bit is supposed to be a neglected 11-year-old, a curious 13-year-old, a self-conscious 16-year-old or a newly independent college girl.
Reaser wears these girlish guises lightly, without allowing Li’l Bit to slip out of character as the witty, all-knowing narrator of her own story. But while she remains a bit remote from Li’l Bit’s more vulnerable younger self, thesp is wonderfully watchable as the grown woman who survived her harrowing girlhood and can now look back on it with rueful self-awareness.
Since this is Li’l Bit’s personal memory play, you have to wonder why she retains such fond feelings for Peck (Norbert Leo Butz), the uncle who seduced her when she was 11 years old. Vogel’s boldest stroke in this provocative play is to discard the common image of the pedophile as drooling monster and present him as he more often is — disturbingly human and all too real.
In Butz’s spellbinding performance, the alcoholic and unhappy Uncle Peck is the saddest and neediest person in the play, which makes him both disarming and dangerous. Children like him, love him, and why not? He’s gentle, he’s kind, he’s patient — and he understands them well enough to make them complicit in their own seduction.
Whoriskey’s production is significant because it goes out of its way to acknowledge that complicity. Li’l Bit was surely abused during those driving lessons, but she also earned her independence by learning how to handle a car — and the man who taught her how to drive. And while Uncle Peck surely took criminal advantage of his innocent niece, once the balance of power shifted, he became her victim.
Vogel has penned a shocking play on a distressing subject, but the subtlety of her writing and the ambiguity of her themes leave the play open to any number of interpretations. Which pretty much guarantees that we haven’t seen the last of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, or resolved the mysteries of their relationship.