“It’s kind of astonishing that it got produced at all,” says playwright Paula Vogel of her 1997 work How I Learned to Drive. The critically lauded play premiered at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, and after a sold-out initial run, quickly transferred to a commercial venue where it played for another year. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998 and sprouted regional theatre productions across the country, cementing the work in the American theatrical canon.
It might seem those successes would have led to a Broadway transfer of the play, especially with its leads Mary-Louise Parker, who was already Tony-nominated at the time, and David Morse, who had national fame from his years on the television medical drama St. Elsewhere. But it was never even seriously discussed.
“The reason back then was that this was not Broadway material. And the other thing that was still very much in the air was that ‘when women write plays, they’re not really universal; they’re women’s plays,’” says Vogel.
Vogel would eventually make her Broadway debut a full 20 years later with the play Indecent in 2017, and now, 25 years after it first hit the Vineyard stage, How I Learned to Drive is making its Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, and is nominated for a Best Revival of Play Tony Award. Parker and Morse are also both nominated for their returns to the roles of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck in the coming-of-age memory play about a teen girl’s unsettling and complex relationship with her uncle. Original cast member Johanna Day returns, too, along with original director Mark Brokaw.
“I get this extraordinary opportunity to look at it again with our same leads and our same director,” says Vogel. I’ve never seen any chemistry onstage like the one that exists between Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse. It is thrilling to come back into a room after 25 years and see these three actors return to their roles, with all of their experiences. They are greater actors today than they were when they did it 25 years ago, and I thought they were genius then.”
The revival was meant to open pre-pandemic and though Vogel wasn’t sure that it would return when the industry reemerged, she wasn’t overly concerned. “You reach an age where you just think ‘I must write this play,’ and you don’t think ‘I must have my name on Broadway,’ or ‘I must win the following prizes.’ You just don’t think that way anymore.”
When she returned home from the shuttered rehearsal room in March 2020, the playwright and long-time educator re-evaluated her place in theatre-making and began producing. “I decided that there’s only one thing I know that’s going to happen, and that is that we all die. And I thought ‘This could be it. Covid could be the way I shuffle off this mortal coil,’ and there were plays that I have loved for decades that I’ve never gotten to see because they were not deemed commercial.” As a fierce champion of new playwrights, Vogel, who says she had already worn out her friendships among artistic directors asking them to read the plays of emerging writers, took her savings and created Bard at the Gate, digital readings of yet-to-be-produced works.
“I thought, there’s a long game here…that if I choose brilliant plays primarily by writers of color that I love and by people who are really being bold and daring about gender and sexuality and class and race, that over time, they could become household names for a younger generation,” she says. Her hope is to both provide an income stream for the writers and get their plays into the world “so that there’s a way to get around the gatekeepers.”
"I do feel it's taken a very long time for the 'boys' club' to die out," she says. "My opinion is, this is the most exciting Broadway season I've ever witnessed in my lifetime, and I'm so proud to be a part of it."