‘How I Learned to Drive’ Review: Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse Star in Sterling Revival of Paula Vogel’s Shocker

Mommas, don’t give your daughters the kind of nicknames that would appeal to their pedophile uncles. Cursed with a cutesy moniker like “Li’l Bit,“ what do you think might happen to a supposedly worldly but ever so innocent teenager like the one played to shattering perfection by Mary-Louise Parker? The actor and her equally brilliant co-star, David Morse, originated these roles in playwright Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning play “How I Learned to Drive” a quarter-century ago — and after all these years, they still own them.

“I’m not gonna do anything….” kindly Uncle Peck promises his buxom 17-year-old niece as he undertakes her first perilous driving lesson. Huge sigh of relief. Until he adds: “…. anything you don’t want me to do.”

The tension of that scene, directed with killer intensity by Mark Brokaw, suddenly shoots up like a rocket. With those last, lethal words, Uncle Peck pulls off the unkindest trick of every sexual predator by turning his victim into his accomplice. He actually blames her mind — her “dirty” mind — for “making him” do the dirty thing he’s about to do to her. Her choice, her fault.

Morse is one of those slow-burn actors who know how to hold a pause until it hollers. “Nothing’s gonna happen between us,” his creepy Uncle Peck reassures Li’l Bit. Pause. Pause. “Until you want it to.”

I’ve seen this play about a million times, and lines like that still shock the breath out of me. The play itself still sticks in my throat, as it surely does every woman and girl, young or old, who has seen it in a halfway decent production. And just for the record, this is no halfway enterprise; it’s a first-rate revival of a theater piece that never gets stale, not so long as there are sexual predators abroad in the land and girls with lovely minds who think they know it all, but haven’t a clue about grown men with dirty minds.

Vogel is a genuine wordsmith, and her language here is almost indecently seductive. A list of hard liquor drinks — luscious Pink Ladies, sloe gin fizzes, daiquiris — has the same lilting cadences as a description of a warm summer night under the stars. Because Li’l Bit comes from a family of Maryland country crackers, there’s also a lot of grit on that glib tongue of hers. “In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia,” she tells us. In Parker’s swaggering style, such lines come with a wicked grin.

Brokaw is a sturdy scene director who takes a gentler touch with the often-idiosyncratic language of Vogel’s memory play. (David Van Tieghem’s original music and sound design share much of the credit.) Although Parker and Morse stop short of whispering, there’s something almost tender about their line readings, as if they might break the mood if they let their voices get away from them.

Which is actually kind of funny, because so much of the dialogue at the family dinner table is downright raunchy — indecently so, when it comes to Li’l Bit’s majestic physical endowments. “If Li’l Bit gets any bigger,” her Grandpa cackles, “we’re gonna have ta buy her a wheelbarrow to carry in front of her.”

Given the vulgarity of her family, it’s no wonder that the self-conscious girl becomes the prey of her uncle over the extended course of his avuncular “driving lessons.”  The beauty of Parker’s performance is its complexity. Her teenager is an emotional jumble of intelligence, innocence, awareness, awkwardness, sensitivity and brashness. The marvel of Morse’s performance is its simplicity. His observant uncle is hyper-aware of her vulnerability — period. Although it’s made in hell, theirs is the perfect match of predator and prey.

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