When this 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paula Vogel begins, 17-year-old “Li’l Bit” (Elizabeth Reaser) has already had driving lessons to last her a lifetime from her tenderly administering Uncle Peck (Norbert Leo Butz). He has skillfully and without any intentional malice or sense of guilt, been able to seduce his affectionate and trusting niece. Sadly and also ironically Li’l Bit has found in Uncle Peck a companion and a confidant who has afforded her respite and solace from the influences of her incorrigibly gross and crass rural Maryland family. Li’l Bit slowly becomes a victim of her own needs and the needs of an oddly endearing child molester. This is pretty chilling and frightening stuff under consideration in this compelling and also humor-flecked drama now being revived by the Second Stage Theater.
Set during the 1960 and ’70s, the play’s scenes are announced and designated by such textbook chapter titles as “Idling in the Neutral Gear,” “Driving in First Gear,” and “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear.” A scrupulously simple set design by Derek McLane accommodates only a few chairs, a table, a bed, and a vintage auto. But it is all we need as this haunting and extraordinarily insightful play delves selectively, deeply, but never too darkly, into the area of pedophilia.
This, as the car, with its ability to surround and protect its occupant in popular music, becomes a safe haven for its driver, and the principal symbol of her coming-of-age. But Vogel, the author of such equally unusual and provocative plays as “The Baltimore Waltz,” “The Mineola Twins,” and “Desdemona” (among others) in addition to her position as the Eugene O’Neill Professor at the Yale School of Drama, is not about to let us squirm or feel repelled by the discomforting relationship between a teenager and a man twice her age.
We are soon as captivated by the complex nature of their forbidden love as well as by the very fine performances of Reaser and Butz. Reaser, who earned a 2007 Independent Spirit Award nomination and an Emmy nomination for her work on “Sweet Land” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” is impressive as the instinctively flirtatious and almost unwittingly accommodating young woman (the role originated by Mary-Louise Parker) whose life is unalterably changed by her relationship with her uncle. Without recourse to subtlety but rather with an open-hearted generosity, Reaser takes us on Li’l Bit’s ride from a critically dependent childhood to a deeply troubled adulthood.
Butz, who won the Leading Actor in a Musical Tony for his role in “Catch Me If You Can,” is scarily believable as a man who has been able to justify his unacceptable behavior even as he sees the extent to which his behavior has ruined his needy niece’s life. Perhaps it is the empathetic, warm, and unthreatening manner that shades and defines Butz’s performance as Peck (the role originally played by David Morse) that helps make this unsettling play even more chilling than I remember it being.
The play’s cleverly structured, non-chronological sequences are often given a lift by the abrasive and funny intrusion of Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and Marnie Schulenburg who act as various relatives and “Greek chorus.” With an emphasis on the simplicity of action and integrity of message, “How I Learned to Drive” has been placed into the capable hands of a director Kate Whoriskey, the same gifted director credited for giving memorable dramatic shape to such excellent Off Broadway plays as “Ruined” and “The Piano Teacher.” ***
“How I Learned to Drive,” through Sunday, March 11, Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street. $75; $67.50 senior. 212-246-4422.