Anecdotally, I’ve found that How I Learned to Drive is a play that most people – or at least, most theater students – read before seeing. One reason for that: from an organizational standpoint, it’s an incredibly well constructed play that anyone pursuing theater should read to understand the brilliance of playwright Paula Vogel’s dramaturgy. Ms. Vogel takes a linear story – of Lil’ Bit, the protagonist’s, relationship with her Uncle Peck – and restacks its scenes out of chronological order. Lil Bit is 17, then 11, then 19, etc etc etc.
One of the first handouts I got in one of the first grad school classes I took re-structured the scenes, putting them back into chronological order. The result was a play that was utterly different, and the lesson – that structure is everything – was well learned. And in the case of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel needed all the structural help she could get to make her story palatable. Which leads me into the second reason this play is more often read than seen: it’s just not staged that often. Because my god, is it a “tough” play. It’s one of those plays about one of those issues that people just don’t like to spend 90 minutes of their Friday nights dissecting. It’s a play about pedophilia.
Any play that attempts to tackle such a Big Issue must do so with great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Even plays that “succeed” to any extent, like this one (which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), will inevitably be attacked as being too SOMETHING – insensitive, sensitive, “favoring” of a certain character, sensationalist…the list goes on and on. Because going to a play like How I Learned to Drive is never “fun”, or entertainment in the way a blockbuster musical would be. Rather, it’s an experience that’s much more difficult, but ideally still provides some sort of catharsis while packing a hell of an emotional punch. In the case of this Second Stage revival of How I Learned to Drive, this is true on both counts.
I’m sorry to say that How I Learned to Drive is not the only theatrical production I’ve ever seen about molestation and pedophilia. On the other end of the spectrum, I once saw a very, very unfortunate musical on the topic. Yup, you heard me: musical. No, it wasn’t bright and flashy and offensive in the way you might be fearing, but at it’s worst, it was surface level, a bit crass, and entirely alienating. God knows the actors worked their hearts out, but somehow breaking into song before engaging in a horrifying act of sexual incongruity just didn’t seem to strike the right emotional chord. Ever. For better or worse, this musical (which will remain unnamed in this post, I think, for the sake of propriety), is now a benchmark and point of comparison on all my current and future Big Issue theatrical excursions, and proved a good foil to my experience watching How I Learned to Drive.
As I mentioned, the play revolves around a story between Lil’ Bit and her Uncle Peck, who start a sexual (or at least, sexually inappropriate) relationship when she’s 11 that extends until she goes to college. In skipping around between the years, How I Learned to Drive attempts to provide emotional respite between the darker scenes with comedic monologues and scenes featuring Lil’ Bit’s wacky family; moments that struck me as hollowly ironic and depressing given the intensity of the sexual crime Lil Bit’s family was willfully ignorant of.
In the case of this Second Stage production, too, I found the play’s moments of comedy awkward and uncomfortable, although I might have been in the minority in thinking so. The audience around me certainly laughed; but again, don’t get me started on obnoxious and incongruous audience reactions to crap, ugh. In the same way, the design choice to have a colorful – and at times almost cartoonish – set came across as bizarre and discomfiting, but perhaps on both counts this was actually appropriate and well executed. After all, we are talking about a protagonist who’s under 15 for half the production; a child who is tragically thrust into an adult world. If the bright colors of the set or the charicatured portrayal of Lil Bit’s “wacky” family is meant to remind us of her “stolen” youth, then good on you, Second Stage. (Although in that sense, I suppose I’ll be giving them credit for anything about the production that came across as weird or uncomfortable…because uhm…pedophilia is WEIRD AND UNCOMFORTABLE.)
Without question, for me, the most devastating moment of How I Learned to Drive comes at the end. Ms. Vogel waits until the play’s penultimate scene to show us the first sexual encounter between Lil Bit and her uncle – on a road trip when she is only 11. After hours of driving, Uncle Peck asks Lil Bit if she wants to drive (the theme of driving, and driving as delivering agency and power, is pervasive throughout the play….you know, if the title didn’t already give that one away). When she excitedly says yes, but bemoans the fact that she’s too small for her feet to reach the pedals, he offers to sit her on his lap – so that he can control the accelerator while she holds the wheel. As she keeps her hands dutifully on 9 and 3, grinning ear to ear at the thrill of the experience, he sneaks his own up her shirt, pawing at her chest. Her excitement instantly dissolves to panic, and when she asks him to stop, he insists on a few more moments. It’s a disgusting and disquieting scene. But it’s actually not the “most devastating moment” that I was referring to.
No, the scene that hurts me the hardest comes right before that one, when Lil Bit, still 11, is begging her mother for permission to go on that ill fated car trip. In maybe the only scene where the mother comes across as a reasonable human being, and not an overblown charicature, she refuses Lil Bit’s initial whining, insisting that she “doesn’t like the way your Uncle looks at you” and that it’s “inappropriate” for a young girl and a grown man to be on a car trip alone for so many hours. (By the way, if its any consolation to those of you who don’t know the play, Uncle Peck is related to Lil Bit only by marriage – he is not a blood relative. If that makes it…uhm…”better”?)
Anyway, Lil Bit insists. I mean – she’s 11! Her uncle, who she loves, offered to take her to the beach! Of course she wants to go! And, with persistent whining, she manages to wear her mother down, but before her mother consents, she turns and delivers the line that will make my gut wrench in horror literally every time I hear it. “Alright, but I’m warning you – if anything happens – I’ll hold you responsible.”
Without a doubt, this line is for me the most awful of the play, and provides the genesis for so much of the complicated guilt and love Lil’ Bit struggles with perpetually throughout How I Learned to Drive. When a mother quite literally pre-warns her 11-year-old daughter that the crime that is going to be committed against her is HER FAULT…yikes. For me, this line certainly helps explain the comic characterization of Lil Bit’s family, as well as the awkward humor of the play and the crayola aesthetic of the Second Stage production – if we are to see this play as “created” by an older Lil Bit (her older self narrates throughout) – the entire tone of frozen but skewed cartoonism is evidence of a psyche that is forever trapped in the confusion and guilt of an 11 year old who has experienced a lifetime’s worth of emotionally manipulative trauma.
When it comes to this play, certainly the performance of the actress playing Lil Bit is important, but even more so, the performance of the actor playing Uncle Peck is crucial. After all, it is his character that is the most impossible to like, that is the easiest to dismiss and deplore. But, if he were meant to be so one-dimensional, why bother writing him into a play? Or, for that matter, why bother writing the play at all? “Pedophilia is bad” is not exactly a lesson that I think we NEED from our theater. It’s more a Captain Obvious Statement-Of-The-Month. Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Lil Bit, is good — she grows on you, for sure, but honestly, it was the performance of Norbert Leo Butz that I was most curious to see.
Yes, for those of you who recognize the name, that is Norbert Leo Butz, Broadway “darling”, of Catch Me If You Can and Wicked fame. This is a guy who sang a song about farts in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I just did a google search for him, and one of the first articles I found, about his role as Fiyero in the original cast of Wicked, bore the headline “Fiyero’s Tight Pants Led to Norbert Leo Butz’ Love Connection.” Basically, this is not a bro you’d expect to perform a serious role. Especially this serious role. Also, for literally no apparent reason, I have a pointlessly aggressive hatred for Norbert Leo Butz. Again, no reason for it. He annoyed me in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and, for funzos, I have dutifully harbored that annoyance ever since. Basically, I was prepared to watch this play and then shit all over his performance on this blog. You know, it’s the little things…
And yet, I cannot. Unfortunately. After sitting on it for a few nights, I’ve realized that Norbert Leo Butz’ performance in this role was actually pretty exceptional. Any choices an actor makes as Peck are bound to annoy someone somewhere, simply given the controversial nature of the character, but Butz’ bold choice of playing a Peck who seemed awkward, even bumbling, and painfully self-aware of his behavior, is, I feel, just the kind of anxiety-producing performance this play thrives upon. He made himself somewhat hard to hate, I must say.
I’ve spoken to several people who, for that very same reason, took issue with Mr. Butz’ performance. It’s easy to talk abstractly about Paula Vogel’s presumed goal of depicting Peck in a frustratingly sympathetic way, but it turns out that gets pretty hard to take when its real bodies in real time performing such really terrible actions. I, too, initially wanted Peck to be dirtier, meaner, less conflicted and more awful and thus, importantly, easier to dismiss in disgust, but that would have made for a How I Learned to Drive that was a whole lot easier to take overall. Throughout the performance, I heard a few audience members clucking self-consciously in disapproval of various scenes, but not that many, because honestly, every scene in the play is the awful confluence of two sadly desperate, desperately sad characters finding a weird, conflicted peace with each other while at the same time hurting each other deeply. It’s fucking complicated, man! And Norbert Leo Butz, god love him, works hard to make us feel the depth of that complication as much as possible.
A few people have asked me what I “thought” of How I Learned to Drive since I saw it on Thursday night. It’s been a tough question to answer. I mean…I thought it was awful. But that’s mostly because pedophilia is awful, and watching emotional manipulation wrap its vicegrip around a victim is never “fun”. I wouldn’t say, in that sense, that my experience at the show was by any means “enjoyable”. However, it sure was cathartic – Ms. Vogel gives her protagonist some redemption. As I mentioned before, for Lil Bit, learning to drive (which, ironically, is something her Uncle teaches her – and teaches her well), represents the ultimate in empowerment. Whenever she talks about driving – “flooring it” – she gains a confidence and agency that is truly satisfying to watch. A small moment of victory in an otherwise terrifically challenging play. So no, I didn’t have “fun” at How I Learned to Drive, but I sure am glad I saw it, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.