From the opening scene of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, directed by Kate Whoriskey at the Second Stage Theatre, it becomes clear that Ms. Vogel’s play is not really about driving a car. It is immediately obvious that Lil’bit’s driving lessons with her middle-aged uncle “Peck” will devolve into something much more sinister and inappropriate. This sense of inevitability does not detract from the play’s suspense, however. As Uncle Peck slowly and carefully seeks to seduce Lil’Bit, the tangible tension in the audience slowly builds to climax. In her portrayal of Lil’ Bit, Elizabeth Reaser’s pouty, flirtatious facial expressions often seemed to be a facade. That is not to say that Reaser’s performance seemed unreal, in fact, Reaser’s stock expressions emphasized Lil’ Bit’s inability to express her inner confliction and confusion.
Akin to Lil’ Bit, the audience is also conflicted. Although the inappropriate relationship seems unavoidable, I never stopped hoping for Lil’Bit’s sake that nothing serious would actually happen between her and Uncle Peck. The brilliance of this performance was that Uncle Peck was not vilified; instead I could not help but empathize with Uncle Peck and wish him a happy ending. This empathy for Uncle Peck could not have been achieved were it not for Norbert Leo Butz’ tremendous performance in the role. Mr. Butz pulled off a precarious and paradoxical balance of vulnerability and disturbing power.
Most disturbing of all is the reaction of Lil Bit’s family to the unfolding relationship between Uncle Peck and Lil’Bit. Just as the perversity of Uncle Peck’s relationship with Lil Bit is immediately obvious to the audience, Lil’Bit’s family also suspects the inappropriate rapport. Lil’Bit’s family doesn’t hold Uncle Peck responsible, however; and instead blames Lil Bit for “seducing” her uncle. Clearly it’s the other way around. The culture which breeds such backwards blame is personified by the trio of actors Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan, and Marnie Schulenburg who play Lil’ Bit’s family members and schoolmates. This trio also offers much needed comic relief. Although “How I learned to Drive” is an uncomfortable experience from start to finish, it is worth seeing for its thoughtful consideration of an all too common and perplexing situation.