It’s not often you see an actress return to a role after 25 years away (unless she’s Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!”), but audiences are watching Mary-Louise Parker do just that in the play “How I Learned To Drive.”
Way back in 1997, she originated the part of a woman recalling her school-age sexual abuse in Paula Vogel’s drama, the easygoing revival of which opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Wednesday night. And now she is onstage again with much of that same cast, including David Morse, who plays the uncle that grooms Parker’s character Li’l Bit from her early teens.
1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street.
The reunion has its virtues and its drawbacks. Since Li’l Bit looks back through time — each scene is told through a different “driving lesson” — Parker has the benefit of reflection and her own life experience since the late ’90s. She’s a deep-feeling actress and an unfailingly genuine presence, and is always a wonder to watch.
Still, if time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, it can at least soften painful memories. And “How I Learned To Drive,” once again directed by Mark Brokaw, is lighter than I have ever seen it. The show hit me harder in a small room when I was in college. That resistance to anguish is confusing when there are should-be visceral scenes like Uncle Peck getting 16-year-old Li’l Bit drunk on martinis at a fancy restaurant, or feeling her up in a car at only 13, or taking lewd photos of her while encouraging the young girl to pose for Playboy.
When she goes off to college and starts to realize the creepiness of her 1960s small-town Maryland predicament, leading to a devastating climax in a hotel room, we should be left in pieces. After all, what was once quietly frowned upon is now rightly seen as a grievous sin of the abuser. The scene doesn’t quite reach those heights of emotion.
The younger supporting cast, Alyssa May Gold and Chris Myers, play a number of parts, none of which they fully embody and their acting is overly presentational. Johanna Day, who also appeared in the original production, has some spot-on moments, though, including a heart-wrenching speech where she acknowledges her husband Peck’s penchant for cheating and a funny one where she lists off rules for women drinking.
All of these scenes occur in front of Rachel Hauck’s set of bland gradient columns with a nondescript table and a few chairs. “How I Learned To Drive” doesn’t need a lot — or even any — scenery, but what’s there right now is limiting.
However, it’s rewarding to return to Vogel’s play, if only to understand her growth as a writer. Stylistically, her superior “Indecent,” which played Broadway in 2015, couldn’t be more different than “Drive.” Throughout her career, she’s never coasted.
And there is poignancy to Parker and Morse reckoning with Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck after all these years. Morse, especially, humanizes the man into somebody we, at least, try to understand.
One thing that is so remarkable about Parker is her comfort on a Broadway stage. During the play, she sits at the edge and speaks to the audience so serenely and unwaveringly. Even big stars sometimes get the jitters and dive their hands into their pockets like a little kid hiding under the covers. Not Parker. Her simultaneous confidence and vulnerability is always worth experiencing, even when the production doesn’t share it.