Theatre heals the soul in a unique way. Yes, it offers the solace of distraction (I learned as a college junior in American Lit II that I am what they call an “escapist”) but it also has the power to translate the various traumas we experience as human beings, no matter the circumstances, into something universal.
Last week, my grandmother passed away. She was 96 years old and lived a full and wonderful life. I hope I’m half as “with it” when I’m 70 as she was at 96. She was a fantastic, funny woman. I love her and I miss her.
This weekend I escaped into the world of theatre. It was an odd kind of haven; the plays I chose to see were not light, fluffy musicals like one might demand in time of personal crisis, just to “escape” the realities of life and death. One was a comedy, yes, but it was a comedy about the agonies of being a writer (hmmm…); another was about the Holocaust; and the third had to do with pedophilia.
The third play, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is the one I want to review for you today. For one thing, the show’s run ONLY LASTS THROUGH MARCH 11. Which means if there is any way you can make it into New York City to see it this week or this weekend, it is DEFINITELY worth your time and money.
The second reason is simple: this play is freaking AMAZING.
2econd Stage Theatre is known for delivering excellent Off-Broadway theatre starring big-stage and big-screen actors alike. Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (a personal fave) was produced at 2econd Stage, as were a number of shows that later went to Broadway, including Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Stars at 2econd Stage include John Lithgow, Patricia Heaton, Bill Pullman, Anna Deavere Smith and Broadway favorite Sutton Foster.
How I Learned to Drive, directed by Kate Whoriskey, unites Tony Award-winner Norbert Leo Butz and big-screen veteran Elizabeth Reaser to create the center of a subtly disturbing dramedy about the physical relationship between “good ol’ boy” Peck and the lovely Li’l Bit…his non-biological niece.
Vogel’s play is exceedingly clever and very theatrical. I read it when I was first pursuing my M.A. in creative writing and How I Learned to Drive had a strong influence on my own play. Key to the script and the acting is that Uncle Peck doesn’t feel like a villain. He’s a charming Southern boy whose basic catchphrase is “I won’t do anything you don’t want me to, Li’l Bit.” When we first meet them, Li’l Bit is 17 years old and we can’t help but feel some level of distaste for this young woman who is out “parking” with her aunt’s husband. This is only one speck of cleverness amidst the grand intricacies of Vogel’s writing. As she uses driving terms to guide us backward through time (“Putting your car in reverse,” a member of the Vogel’s Greek Chorus might say), more and more pieces of the story are revealed, until the startling conclusion – really, the beginning – clutches your stomach and doesn’t let go.
Vogel uses a three-person chorus – Male Greek Chorus, Female Greek Chorus, and Teenage Greek Chorus – to play other characters in the drama (including Li’l Bit’s mother, grandmother, grandfather, and aunt, among others) but they also provide a narrative that ties the entire piece together. Occasionally, they even sing.
Did I mention this play is SUPER theatrical?
How I Learned to Drive is a beautiful play about a very difficult topic. Vogel is never gratuitous in what she asks the audience to witness; the play is disturbing, yes, but in a way that allows us to feel discomfort without complete despair. It’s a very funny play at times, and very hopeful. Most of all, for all its “theatricality,” it’s very real. I loved that marriage of realism and theatricality while reading the script and I loved it even more watching it on stage.
This Off-Broadway production was spot-on and poignant; I couldn’t imagine the performances any better or the set any more appropriate. I said it once and I’ll say it again: if you have the chance between now and March 11, drive to New York City, run up to 43rd Street (or hit the TKTS booth!) and buy yourself a ticket to see 2econd Stage Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. You won’t regret it.