Playwright Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for her 25-year-old play “How I Learned to Drive,” which has been seen in productions around the world and is now on Broadway in a staging nominated for three Tony Awards. But there’s still one part of the play that remains a mystery even to her.
Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:
“It makes no sense in the structure of the play,” Vogel said on “Stagecraft,” Variety’s theater podcast, on which she appeared alongside the production’s Tony-nominated star David Morse. “It’s a complete interruption of the narrative.”
She was describing a scene in which Uncle Peck, the character played by Morse, takes young Cousin Bobby fishing. The delicately acted moment resonates with discomfiting echoes of the play’s main storyline, which follows the sexual relationship between Peck and his much younger niece Li’l Bit (played by Mary-Louise Parker). But as Vogel admits, in a play that is told almost entirely from Li’l Bit’s perspective, this one sequence, in which Li’l Bit plays no part, isn’t a logical fit.
But as Vogel described on “Stagecraft,” she remains very attached to the scene for a striking reason. When she was first writing the script, she recalled, “At the end of the scene that was in my outline, [I saw Uncle Peck] suddenly get out of the car, suddenly take off his jacket, suddenly start rolling up his sleeves, slipping out of his shoes. And I literally said out loud in the middle of the night, ‘What the hell are you doing? That’s not in the outline!’ And then another voice went, ‘Vogel, shut up and follow him.’ So the fishing scene literally felt like I was taking dictation. Which is a very weird experience!”
During rehearsals for the first production of the play back in 1997, she and the show’s director, Mark Brokaw (also the director of the current production), talked about cutting the scene entirely. “I said, ‘Mark, here’s the damn thing, it’s the one part I can’t cut because I don’t think it came from me,'” Vogel remembered.
Morse starred in that original production alongside Parker, and Vogel clearly remembers the early performance when Morse first made sense of that fishing scene (which includes the added challenge of acting opposite a character who is not portrayed by an actor onstage but exists only in the audience’s imagination).
Morse said he wasn’t party to those talks about the scene’s challenges. “Nobody told me that all during rehearsal they were struggling with what to do with it,” he said. “Really the thing that I had to do was bring Bobby to life. Be there and fish with him. That’s all I had to do, go teach him how to fish. The more clear I could make that boy, the better it was going to be…And he’s become only more vivid to me, being out there with him.”
He added, “The character [of Uncle Peck] is so vivid and he’s got so much going on. There are so many layers to this man, but the simplest thing about him is the love that he feels, and that was always clear to me.”
Also on “Stagecraft,” Vogel and Morse discussed the autobiographical resonances of the story, the MeToo movement, and whether it’s kosher to sneak tequila into the Tony ceremony.
To hear the full conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.