Elizabeth Reaser is hell on wheels. "I started stealing my parents' car and my friends' parents' cars in the middle of the night when I was ten, and we would just joyride," she recalls. "I was such trouble. By the time I went to driver's ed, I already knew what I was doing."
Driven by the same childlike fearlessness, Reaser, 36, is gearing up for the Off-Broadway revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, opening Feb. 13 following previews at Second Stage Theatre. Reaser stars as Li'l Bit, the sexually abused narrator of the Pulitzer Prize–winning memory play. The darkly comic coming-of-age drama follows a young girl whose alcoholic Uncle Peck (two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz) crosses the line during a series of intimate driving lessons.
After earning an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the film "Sweet Land" and an Emmy nomination for her recurring role on "Grey's Anatomy," Reaser has become most widely known — cue the screaming tweens — as Esme, matriarch of the Cullen vampire clan, in the supernaturally popular "Twilight" films. Currently appearing opposite Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson in "Young Adult," she returns to the New York stage for the first time since The Winter's Tale at Classic Stage Company in 2003. "Being a theatre actress was always my dream, and I've really missed it," says Reaser, who studied drama at Juilliard. "When this opportunity came out of nowhere, it blew me away."
Kate Whoriskey, who steered the Off-Broadway hit Ruined and the recent Broadway mounting of The Miracle Worker, directs How I Learned to Drive 15 years after it premiered at the Vineyard Theatre as a vehicle for Mary-Louise Parker. Due to the prevalence of pedophilia in the news, Reaser believes that the revival couldn't come at a better time. "It's a very taboo, complicated subject, and it's probably way more common than any of us realize," Reaser says. "This play captures something emotionally true about that experience, and it's a story worth telling." Worth hearing, too, especially by Twilight fans who want to see their beloved Esme Cullen in the flesh. "The play speaks safely to young girls; there are some horrible, heartbreaking elements to the story, but it's also funny and, as Paula Vogel might say, it never abuses the audience." Although she's approaching How I Learned to Drive with one of the world's biggest film franchises in her rearview mirror, Reaser's long absence from the stage occasionally fuels her nerves. Co-star Norbert Leo Butz, who most recently brightened Broadway's Catch Me If You Can, helps her stay on course. "It's brilliant casting, because there's no one more charismatic and likable than Norbert, but I also knew from the beginning that he would take good care of me," she says. "The first time we hung out, we solemnly swore that we would always be there for each other, because that trust is so important. Besides, Li'l Bit is the role of a lifetime, and I'm excited and honored to be going on this amazing ride. No pun intended."