Elizabeth Reaser makes a remarkable transformation in the first minutes of “How I Learned to Drive,” being revived at New York’s Second Stage.
As the adult narrator of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, she introduces us to a Southern girl’s family-dominated world.
Then, with a barely noticeable loose-limbed skip and a faint relaxing of her eyes, she becomes that girl, called Li’l Bit.
It’s all the more remarkable because the actress is so well known in grown-up parts, from the “Twilight” film series to recurring roles on “The Good Wife” and other TV dramas.
Li’l Bit has been taking driving lessons from her over-attentive uncle, nicknamed Peck and played by Norbert Leo Butz. Peck has been taken with Li’l Bit from the day of her birth.
Since nature took its course with her chest, however, that attention has become a more sinister obsession. The car rides he takes her on, beginning at age 11, are skirmishes at which she generally loses as the stakes grow increasingly more tawdry.
Reaser persuasively negotiates the emotional journey between memory and first-hand experience, even as Vogel intensifies the challenge by skipping around in time and holding her trump card until the final scene.
It’s not until the last moments of “How I Learned to Drive” that we realize the sometimes charming Peck is truly evil.
Reaser and Butz are superb as a girl whose trusting nature is inexorably destroyed by an unrepentant, methodical predator. Director Kate Whoriskey seems unconcerned with developing any sympathy for a pedophile. That’s probably as it should be, even if it’s slightly less interesting than a more complex reading.
Through March 11 at 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; http://www.2st.com. Rating: ***
Yale’s ‘Good Goods’
Yale Repertory Theatre is the place where August Wilson began his unmatched cycle about life in a black enclave of Pittsburgh. Those 10 plays unselfconsciously shifted between realism and ghost story, tall tale and religious experience.
Christina Anderson, whose “Good Goods” has just opened at the Rep, has some Wilson coursing through her veins.
Good Goods is the name of a family-owned dry goods store in a rural outpost somewhere in the deep south. Truth (the wonderful Marc Damon Johnson) cares for the place founded by his adoptive father, now dead.
Stacey is the prodigal, the owner’s birth son, who has come back after years on the road as an entertainer with Patricia (de’Adre Aziza). Patricia also shows up, with Sunny (Angela Lewis) a sweet young girl she met on the bus. Rounding out the company is Wire (Kyle Beltran), with whom Truth shares a secret.
Much of what transpires on James Schuette’s beautiful home-spun set is the poetry of unsung lives unfolding in places barely drawn on any map.
But when an accident in a nearby factory takes the life of a neighbor, his soul invades Sunny’s body and some hell breaks loose. A place we think we may know becomes as exotic as a distant world.
Anderson, abetted by Tina Landau’s assured direction, is a voice to reckon with. Lewis, most recently seen in “Milk Like Sugar” at Playwrights Horizons, is memorable as the possessed Sunny. Tugging at her bindings and growling imprecations, Lewis is bottled ferocity in a knockout performance that makes a trip to New Haven eminently worthwhile.
Through Feb. 25 at 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Information: +1-203-432-1234; http://www.yalerep.org. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)