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Review - How I Learned To Drive

Given its pedigree as a Pulitzer winner that swept every playwriting award an Off-Broadway entry could win during its premiere run in 1997, you would think that Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive would follow the lead of other Off-Broadway successes like Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias and, most recently, Wit, and return to New York in a Broadway production.

Well, Second Stage's fine new mounting by Kate Whoriskey certainly boasts a Broadway star in Norbert Leo Butz. And the recognizable television/film name quota is satisfied by the presence of Elizabeth Reaser (also an experienced stage actress), but perhaps Broadway isn't quite ready for a drama (with quite a bit of comedy) about the relationship between an underage girl and her pedophile uncle that doesn't make him completely a villain and her completely a victim.

Told in a series of memory scenes that jump back and forth chronologically, the story is narrated by Li'l Bit (Reaser), recalling her years in 1960s Maryland as an early-developing girl in a sexually repressed household that makes her feel humiliated for her large breasts.

Kevin Cahoon and Marnie Schulenburg, who each play multiple roles, are both funny and horrifying as her grandparents; a child bride who believes the female orgasm is a lie and her vulgar, sexist husband. Jennifer Regan doubles as Li'l Bit's Aunt Mary, who is loyal to her husband, Peck (Butz), despite knowing there's something wrong with him, and her mother, who doubts the innocence of her adolescent daughter.

By comparison, Peck can seem very much the cool grown-up, particularly as played by Butz with a soothing drawl and an easy going, respectful manner. (He seems the sturdy role model in a monologue dramatizing a fishing lesson he gives his young nephew, an unseen character.) In teaching Li'l Bit how to drive he's offering her an escape from the embarrassment of home life and a chance to feel in control. He's the only family member who encourages her to go to college and even introduces her to sophisticated things like dinners in fancy seafood restaurants where the staff is lax about allowing young ladies to sample martinis. (Accenting this episode is a hilarious turn by Regan, lecturing the audience on proper cocktail behavior for ladies.) While Li'l Bit is certainly in a vulnerable position, she's precocious enough to believe she can be in control, especially as she nears the age of consent.

In telling her story, Reaser presents a Li'l Bit who is staying firmly in the present, unwilling to bring herself back too closely to her childhood self. This makes determining her age in different scenes a bit tricky, but is an understandable defense mechanism. Given the subject matter, the production is surprisingly unemotional; the cold acceptance of the events providing the requisite discomfort.

Photo of Elizabeth Reaser and Norbert Leo Butz by Joan Marcus.

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