3Views was conceived after an illustrious group of female theater friends, organized by Sarah Ruhl and The Lillys, came together to address the white male critical response to the Broadway runs of Paula Vogel’s Indecent and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. These master writers had long been denied a Broadway stage and a homogenous group of critics, who were not members of the core audience for which the plays were intended, were able to influence early closures. The consensus at the meeting was that diversity and multiplicity in criticism were necessary, or the recent gains in diversifying American theater would be damaged. The goal was not only to create a new publication, but a new model of criticism.
Issue 6 features three female writers (two of whom are queer) responding to Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. These are not objective reviews, some of the contributors are personally connected to Paula, but honest, critically engaging, personal reflections. They place you in the audience and by Paula's side. Happy reading!
The first time I met Paula Vogel, I had just turned twenty-five. I was living in Baltimore, and trying to figure out how to become a playwright. She graciously agreed to sit down for coffee with me when she was in town for a production. Ever the teacher, she started with assignments: subscribe to American Theatre Magazine, take a bus to New York and see Fun Home, look up Playwrights Horizons. (Completing these tasks would change my life.) Then she looked at me very seriously and said: “Miranda, if you want to be a playwright you will need the heart of a lion, the hide of a rhino, and a good home to come home to.” This is perhaps the best advice about a life in the theater that I have ever received.
My most recent encounter with Paula was in January of this year, after the first rehearsal for a play of mine at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco where she has also been produced. It had been one of those strange pandemic beginnings: I was recovering from my second bout of Covid, we were rehearsing on Zoom, and I had to stay in New York until previews. That night I dreamed that I walked into the lobby of the Magic, and there was Paula. She was dressed as the Archangel Gabriel, as if from a Sunday School nativity pageant. “What are you doing here, Paula?” I asked. “I’m here to watch over your play,” she replied. I was amazed. I asked if I could take a picture of her dressed as an archangel to send to her student, and my teacher, Sarah Ruhl. But then I realized I had no camera. “Miranda,” she counseled, “if you want to remember this moment, you must commit it to memory.” And so I stood there and beheld her. When I woke up the next morning, I did indeed remember what it felt like to be watched over, loved, and protected by the Archangel of American Playwrights.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that my journey to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see How I Learned to Drive was more of a pilgrimage than a casual night at the theater. I went to pay homage to a beloved artist. I went to experience a work that I had read, but never seen on stage. I went to catch a glimpse of a storied production that premiered twenty-five years ago at the Vineyard Theatre, when I was an eight-year-old girl growing up in Maryland.
As I am utterly incapable of an objective review, I’ll tell it to you straight: How I Learned to Drive is a masterpiece. It’s a work of tremendous courage and tremendous compassion from a writer who knows the difference between a good home and a bad one. This production, too, is masterful, and I count seeing it among the great gifts of my life in theater.
If you are unfamiliar with the play, it belongs to a woman named Li’l Bit, and her attempt to recount the years of sexual predation she experienced at the hand of her Uncle Peck. This is a play about memory. It’s a play about family, and coming of age. It’s a play about harm. Mary-Louise Parker, reprising her extraordinary turn as Li’l Bit, warns the audience from the jump that “sometimes, to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson.” This principle – in order to tell you one thing, I have to tell you something else, too – is a great magic trick of Paula’s.
So as she learns how to get to the heart of it, Li’l Bit also learns to drive. The audience learns how to fish, how to drink, and the recipe for a Southern boy. Though the matters at hand are serious, this play knows how to play. It’s funny. It flirts. It surprises. It entertains. Surely only Paula Vogel could introduce the notion of pedophilia with a joke about bicycles. Structurally, the play moves by association, because that is how memory works. The scenes progress by a logic of emotional intelligence as much as the logic of time. Non-linear interludes of bus rides and court appeals and sex talks around a kitchen table break up the story of Li’l Bit and Peck, who move (mostly) in reverse chronology. The story begins on a spring night on a quiet road in Maryland, and works backwards, forwards, and sideways until it arrives, in the penultimate scene, to the story’s inciting incident: the last time Li’l Bit felt she lived in her body. That scene, staged with elegant simplicity by director Mark Brokaw, finally manifests her dissociation. It left me utterly devastated. I tear up just thinking about it now. I’m certain that other authors might end the play there, abandoning Li’l Bit in the moment of her trauma in order to make a tragedy of a tragic story. But Paula is there to watch over her. She brings Li’l Bit into a spacious present, on the precipice of feeling “flight in the body.” Though the past is ever-present, Paula sends her off in triumph and defiance out to the open road.
Paula’s collaborators understand that this is a world of possibility and specificity, and they have lovingly made it material. Dede Ayite’s costumes let people look at home in their clothes, even if they feel out of place in their bodies. Mark McCullough’s lighting and Lucy Mackinnon’s video design conjure each space as it is called upon. David Van Tieghem’s compositions and sound design gently summon forth the past. Rachel Hauk’s set is as expansive and elemental as Paula’s writing, allowing the remembered world to become briefly tangible, even as it is more felt than seen. Brokaw skillfully steers the ship through the multiplicities of human life: the longing to escape your body and the longing to take refuge in it, the thrill of growing up and the horror of losing your innocence, the comedy and tragedy of human absurdity, the kindness and the cruelty of an abusive man.
The true delights of this production are its performers. We witness a wheelhouse of characters played by Johanna Day, Alyssa May Gold, and Chris Myers as a Greek Chorus. They become children at school, waiters, and family members whose sins are both transgressions and omissions of care.
And what a pleasure to watch Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, who have been living with these characters for over twenty-five years. As this is a memory play, age is immaterial. Morse’s Peck seems timeless. His sincerity and earnestness conceal a simmering aggression, and humbly embody the complexity of Paula’s rendering. Parker’s clear-eyed shapeshifting, which both observes the past from a distance and experiences it anew, left me a weepy, cathartic mess. How can an actor make me feel that I am truly on a riverbank, watching a child learn to fish? How can an artist suddenly illuminate a teenager’s heartwrenching need to be loved? I thank God for the genius of the actor.
And perhaps I should also attempt to explain what it feels like to go to the theater. These are terribly difficult times, and it often feels like not even theater people are particularly excited about going to plays. I confess that I have felt mostly dread. But when I realized that How I Learned to Drive would be opening, I knew I’d never forgive myself for missing it. I invited my husband, who is very discerning about which plays he will and won’t see. He considered, and accepted. After all, he’s heard me talk about Paula since our very first date, when I said on no uncertain terms that I would need a good home to come home to if I wanted to be a writer. We left our warm apartment in Brooklyn and traveled to Times Square on a very rainy night. He carried an umbrella for us that he called our little house. Before the show began, we eavesdropped on some people behind us comparing their gynecologists. When we came home, we stopped for ice cream, then brought it home to savor on the couch as we contemplated what we’d seen. I consider all of these things part of the beauty of theater, and a part of what has been lost in this very long pandemic.
When 3Views co-editor Sarah Rose Leonard asked if I would write about this play, she suggested I see it again during a formal press evening. I invited my friend Margot Bordelon, who directed my play Plot Points in Our Sexual Development at LCT3, a queer play that could have never existed without trailblazers like Paula. It was beautiful to watch the production mature from previews to opening. Margot and I walked out of the theater shaking our heads in amazement. I changed my route home three times so that I could keep walking and talking with her about it. Weary though we were by the state of the world, we felt renewed by the sublime transfiguration that can happen when a terrible wound meets masterful craft and the deep humanity of artists.
So reader, go see How I Learned to Drive. Study (and produce!) Paula’s plays. Enjoy some ice cream (and perhaps some bourbon) as you digest her art with your loved ones. Celebrate the gifts of her teaching, her writing, and this long-delayed Broadway production. For here is a truth that needs no lesson: the world is better for having Paula Vogel in it, as she entertains us, watches over us, loves, and protects.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel.