Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize April 13, and is scheduled to close Off-Broadway April 19 before productions begin across the U.S. and around the world. Here is an interview Vogel gave Playbill On-Line when How I Learned To Drive first opened.
"When you go through a journey together as an audience, your heart and your spirit become lighter," playwright Paula Vogel says of theatre at its best. Vogel's acclaimed new play, How I Learned to Drive takes audiences on a journey that is both tender and disturbing, funny and heartbreaking. Exquisitely acted by Mary-Louise Parker, David Morse and a three-person ensemble, the play examines the obsessive relationship between a teen-age girl known as Li'l Bit and her uncle by marriage, a courtly man named Peck.
"Critics have said that this is a play about pedophilia, but I think the relationship between these two characters is more complex than that," says Vogel, author of The Baltimore Waltz and head of Brown University's playwriting program. Her inspiration for the play was Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. "I must have read that book a half dozen times since high school," she says. "It was fascinating to me because it was so even-handed and so neutral. I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen if a woman wrote the story from Lolita's point of view."
In a smartly structured series of scenes that goes backward and forward in time, Li'l Bit narrates her life story, then steps into the action with Uncle Peck and various members of their extended family. Much of the play takes place in the Maryland countryside during a series of highly charged driving lessons between uncle and niece. The scenery is minimal; nothing explicit happens in director Mark Brokaw's fluid production. But by the time the play takes on an uncomfortable undertone, audiences have developed an affection for both characters.
"I wanted to get inside this guy's head and present him as a three-dimensional character," explains Vogel. "With David's performance I believe we've done that. The whole play is a balancing act, and David and Mary-Louise are so fine together, they really convey the nuances of this relationship." "I'd been offered similar roles in films," says Morse, known for playing Dr. Jack Morrison in TV's "St. Elsewhere" and for his work in films such as The Crossing Guard and The Rock, "but I never wound up doing them because the characters were so creepy and unlikable. What this man does is born of a sickness, but I can't think of him as a villain. Paula has written the story in a forgiving and loving way."
"Love" is rarely the first word used to describe child abuse, but Parker shares Morse's view of the play. "These two people have an incredibly complicated relationship," says Parker, who makes split-second shifts in age and frame of mind. "There's a mutuality to it on a lot of levels, although the relationship is obviously wrong and damaging to my character. But if she were speaking to you, I think she would call it a love story."
Morse and Parker agree that their onstage chemistry and sense of trust developed naturally. "I think it would be a nightmare if I didn't feel that [trust]," notes Parker, who has worked frequently in the theatre since starring in Prelude to a Kiss seven years ago and starred in such films as Fried Green Tomatoes and Boys on the Side. "Mind you, I'm horrified sometimes before I go onstage, but doing the scenes with David is such a joy. I've worked with incredible actors who are riveting to watch from the audience, but not really present from two feet away. David has a level of reality that is stunning, and it's rare to say that when you're standing right next to the person."
"It was instinctual on both of our parts," Morse says of his partnership with Parker. "I had some concerns about the relationship during rehearsal, but when you're onstage, you just have to go for it." Morse adds, "It hasn't been a problem because Mary-Louise is such a wonderful actress. I'd liked her before, but I'm so impressed with what she's doing in this role."
With its sympathetic portrait of a potentially dangerous man, How I Learned to Drive risks offending women who have survived similar experiences. "I wanted to be respectful and responsible," says Vogel. "I talked to a number of women who have been through it and showed them the play early on, and they felt embraced by it. There are much more severe cases than this play dramatizes, of course. And it seems to me that one thing that gets left out when we're talking about trauma is the victim's responsibility to look the experience squarely in the eye and then to move on. That's the journey I wanted to craft here."
Notes Parker, "This play celebrates someone who took her history and accepted it and uses it to find compassion for other people instead of turning her unhappiness on others and using it to destroy them. In my own life, I've excused rotten behavior on the part of other people, thinking, 'Well, they had a bad childhood.' This character doesn't wallow in her pain. She doesn't see herself as a victim."
After several performances, Morse talked with female audience members who suffered childhood abuse. "There was one woman in particular, around 60 years old, who completely broke down. She said, 'This is my story. It happened when I was 11, and I'm still living with it.' " And yet, Morse adds, "The reaction to the play is always very positive. Some people who have dealt with this have said that the play helped them realize how much healing had taken place in their lives because they were able to watch and laugh and enjoy it. It's a play that touches people, whether they've dealt with something like this in their lives or not."
-- By Kathy Henderson