David Morse on bringing ‘How I Learned to Drive’ to Broadway after 25 years
Morse starred as Uncle Peck in the show's 1997 Off-Broadway premiere, and he speaks on the resonance the play has in a changed world.
Content warning: How I Learned to Drive deals with sexual abuse and pedophilia, and these issues are discussed in this article.
"It's a very simple play in the way it's told, and it really draws you into a very complicated, deep relationship," says actor David Morse of How I Learned to Drive. Nearly 25 years after Paula Vogel's play premiered off Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize, the show is making its Broadway debut with its original stars at the wheel: Mary-Louise Parker and Morse, with their original director, Mark Brokaw.
How I Learned to Drive is deceptively simple, with few sets, few characters, and scenes set in everyday situations like family dinners and car rides. But the show takes audiences through very rocky terrain: an adult woman, nicknamed Li'l Bit, relives jumbled memories about her Uncle Peck. He taught her to drive and encouraged her dream of attending college, but he also molested her during her childhood and adolescence.
Vogel's play was groundbreaking, in part because she wrote about pedophilia and abuse at all in 1997. And though the show is called How I Learned to Drive, it's not instructional. Vogel isn't concerned with driving home how wrong sexual abuse is, as audiences presumably already know that. Instead, Vogel portrays the characters' relationship as a tender, trusting one — the way Li'l Bit herself saw it for years.
In doing so, Vogel explores the experience of a survivor processing difficult, conflicted emotions toward her abuser, including respect and love alongside resentment. Her way of writing about trauma, seldom seen on stage even today, avoids making her characters into simply defined victims and villains.
Morse, who won Drama Desk, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for playing Peck in 1997, now has the added difficulty of humanely portraying a predatory man in a post-#MeToo world.
But he hopes audiences will not come to How I Learned to Drive with preconceived judgments. "I really care about this guy," Morse says. "Paula too, when she wrote this, she really loves this character. And she wrote him with a real compassion." He adds, of the new production: "She's incredibly moved by it and thrilled with what's happening on the stage."
Ahead of How I Learned to Drive's opening night on April 19, New York Theatre Guide spoke with Morse about his approach to playing Peck, reuniting with Parker after 25 years, and how the play has helped audiences heal.
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Has How I Learned to Drive stuck with you in these past 25 years, even as you've taken on other projects?
What we experienced has always stuck with me. When I'm asked about my best experiences or my favorite movies or plays, this was always top of the heap. And I've been part of some really terrific things.
[I was] not sure we'd ever get to do it again, so you have to let that go. But once it became real that we're going to do this, there were things that I was nervous about. That production was remarkable, and those younger people did something really special. And I just wasn't sure that at this point in my life I could live up to that. You'd like to believe you could, but I just wasn't sure I could do it.
In that original production, on opening night, there's a scene where I teach Li'l Bit how to drive, the scene that the play's named after. I thought, "This is going pretty good." And as soon as I thought [that], I couldn't remember the next line. I thought, "Just relax. Okay, the line will come to me." And the line didn't come to me.
I finally had to turn to the audience and say, "I'm sorry, I can't remember my line. Can somebody just help me? This is opening night. Can somebody just please help me with my lines?" They finally got a microphone and blasted it out. I say my line, and then I couldn't remember the next one, and we kind of chugged along and eventually the play went on and then it was fantastic.
But now, we're facing opening night with this thing inside me from 25 years ago. I've just got to get through opening night and remember my lines without having one of those moments!
What was it like working with Mary-Louise Parker again?
I've always strived for an experience on the stage that is more like jazz, where you can go with the moment. Mary-Louise is one of those actors who can do that. Not all actors can do it. Some of them, they're really good, but they've got their performance, they've got their moments, and you just bear with them while they're having those same moments over and over.
That's not my favorite thing to do. I like to be surprised, I like to have the unexpected happen and to be open to that, and it takes a certain kind of courage to do that. You need people who can do it with you and these people are going to do it. I'm getting more and more comfortable with that. This production is allowing that to happen.
Did you approach your own character any differently this time?
We just can't help but have new things to bring [to] it because we're new people. We were pretty young when we did this — Mary-Louise, I think, was early 30s; I was just a little over 40. Which some people would not think is so young, but from this point in my life, it seems pretty young. I'm seeing things that I didn't see before, which is interesting and maybe as rewarding as anything else about doing this.
Not wanting to give away too much about what's in the play, [the difference is] in the relationship with Mary-Louise's character and how I respond to things. There were things that I did in the first production that felt completely right at the time.
Because I've had children for so long now, just how I deal with people, that comes into how I'm dealing with Mary-Louise. There may be a generosity toward her that wasn't there the first time, toward her character and her behavior, but the essential part of it has not changed. And that is in the love story. This man just so dearly and deeply loves this woman, and I probably feel that love more now than I felt then. Which I am grateful for, because that's essential to telling the story of this play.
How do you balance portraying the "generosity" of Uncle Peck with his nature as a predator?
He does not think of himself as being an abuser. He says to her over and over again, "I'm not going to do anything that you don't want me to do." Something happened when she was younger and they were younger. It torments him, and that's really where all of it comes from, this "I'm not going to do anything you don't want me to do." So he doesn't want to think of himself as being a bad guy. He just doesn't.
He is in love with her; he says he's been in love with her from the day she was born, and it's true. He has been in love with her all her life. And he has dreams about where this could go. They probably are not appropriate dreams, but they're dreams that are very dear to him. And that's what I focus on. What he does is in the script, I don't have to think about that; that gets done. So I have to think of him in the way he thinks about himself and her.
How do you think audiences might respond to the play differently than they did 25 years ago? A lot has changed in that time, now that sexual abuse is discussed more openly.
[Vogel] wrote about this relationship and this man in a way that surprised people. I think they were surprised at how sympathetic he felt to them originally. The romantic quality is probably going too far, but there was something that people could feel — they feel the complication, they can feel the attraction these people have for each other. It felt dangerous, but they got it.
But at that time, 25 years ago, people didn't talk about sexual abuse and pedophilia or power abuse, those kinds of dynamics. And there will always be people, after the play, who couldn't leave because they had been through it in their lives, and they just needed other people to talk to about it. And they would talk to me and they would talk to Mary-Louise, they'd talk to each other out there by the stage door, they would discover each other because they couldn't talk with their families or whatever it was, and here, they had an experience with people that just opened them up and they couldn't leave.
Now it's so hard to tell what they're experiencing because we can't talk to anybody. We have the sign on the door, can't have autographs, got to keep our masks on, and distance and all of that. So we're not getting that feedback this time, which is very disappointing, but I can only imagine that there are people out there with that same sort of experience.
But the thing I'm worried about is, for Uncle Peck now, in this new world, where there have been so many real-life bad men, there's not a lot of sympathy for people like that — and deservedly so. I worry about him in this world and the compassion that Paula wrote about it with.
People come in with such strong judgments about who he is, who they think this person is, and may not be willing to be open to what Paula is trying to do in the play and what I'm giving to him or allowing in him. I fear for him with some audience members.
Can you tell me about your and Paula Vogel's conversations about that?
We didn't even start rehearsals without having that conversation. We realized that we cannot be doing this just to be doing a play. Even if it took us 25 years to do it, we can't just go on that stage just so we can do a play. This is way more important than that. The original people got together before the new cast members were part of this, and we talked for a couple of days before rehearsals started — very deeply about ourselves, our own experiences, our loved ones' experiences. And we found really important reasons for us personally to be doing this and telling this story.
Have you worked with any of your original collaborators in the last 25 years, and how did your communication (or lack thereof) affect how you came together again for How I Learned to Drive on Broadway?
We had not worked together. And we tried to do this for 25 years — we thought we would have done it a long time ago, and because of our schedules or trying to get a theatre or whatever it was, it never worked out. It just took this long to do it. But I think there was a connection — I don't think, I know there was a connection that happened between us all, and Mary-Louise and myself particularly on that stage and with each other, that was unlike almost anything we've done with other people.
I've had some amazing experiences with amazing people, and I've loved it and it's been really exciting to be a part of. But maybe because of the nature of this story, what we had to do with each other, reveal to each other, the way that Mary-Louise works, which is incredible to be a part of and experience with her — it was unlike almost anything I've done. So to come together again and to continue that, and have it even become deeper and more vital, has been a great thing.
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This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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