Paula Vogel's fine 1997 play How I Learned to Drive, about an unhealthy relationship between an uncle and his niece, gets a strong, sensitive revival at Second Stage. Director Kate Whoriskey expertly navigates the tricky subject matter as well as the play's delicate mix of humor and sadness. And as the genial Peck, Norbert Leo Butz proves that he is just as compelling in a serious, subtle drama as he is in upbeat musical comedies.
The action begins on a warm summer evening in Maryland in 1969 when Li'l Bit (Elizabeth Reaser) is 17 and her uncle (Butz) is middle-aged and married. He gives her driving lessons in his 1956 Chevy, and it's clear that they have a close, flirtatious connection. Vogel goes back and forth in time, revealing more information gradually. Only near the end do we find out when the inappropriate relationship started and what the consequences were for both of them. Using lyrical narration by Li'l Bit and a "Greek chorus" of three actors who also play family members (Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenburg), Vogel doesn't make Peck a monster and doesn't make Li'l Bit completely innocent.
At one point Peck's wife, Aunt Mary, says, "She knows exactly what she is doing." It turns out that Li'l Bit's grandmother was only 14 when she got married, at a time when that was legal. And Li'l Bit's grandfather, Big Papa, doesn't see why she should go to college. As he sees it, her ample bosom is the only "credential" she needs.
Like Vogel, Whoriskey doesn't make anything in the story cut and dried. The action shifts gracefully back to Li'l Bit's childhood and ahead to her troubled adulthood, with narration shedding light on the complicated, evolving relationship that drives the play. Butz, a naturally likable performer, finds plenty of cues in Vogel's script to make Peck funny, engaging and amiable. Yes, Peck is a seducer and a pedophile, but Butz (and Vogel) make it hard for us to hate him. A two-time Tony winner for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me if You Can, Butz employs an authentic-sounding North Carolina accent to win over Li'l Bit and the audience.
Reaser, best known for her roles in the Twilight films and the indie Young Adult, ably expresses Li'l Bit's deeply conflicted feelings about her uncle. She is never really convincing as a teenager, however, and she comes across as too self-possessed for the role. Li'l Bit should be uncomfortable in her own body, and Reaser never conveys that. The fact that the actress has done primarily movies and television may explain why the physical side of stage acting isn't her forte. She is talented, though, and will no doubt become an even better stage actress if she keeps doing theater. Mary-Louise Parker, who originated the part at the Vineyard Theatre in 1997 opposite David Morse, had more theater credits behind her and gave one of her best performances in the part.
The three supporting actors do a good job juggling roles of vastly different ages. They also provide introductions to scenes that, not surprisingly, include driving metaphors, such as "Driving in First Gear." Derek McLane's set features streetlights and the silhouette of Peck's beloved Chevy. The image of the predatory uncle sitting in it at the end of the play contributes a powerful, lasting image. Like Li'l Bit, theatergoers may find it hard to get that image out of their heads. Vogel's cleverly constructed, deeply felt, unsettling play lingers in the memory, too.