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The two-time Tony nominee on returning to Paula Vogel's landmark play after 25 years
You've probably heard that Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse are reprising the roles they originated 25 years ago in Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway production of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. But they're not the only cast members returning to this unforgettable memory play about a bright young woman named L'il Bit (Parker) coming to grips with her devastating relationship with her charming Uncle Peck (Morse). Johanna Day is also revisiting the role she originated a quarter century ago—make that roles. Though she's billed as Female Greek Chorus, Day plays multiple influential figures in Li'l Bit's life, including her steely Aunt Mary and her troubled mother Lucy, adults who do shockingly little to protect her. Day thinks that's because they were probably victims, too. In Vogel's complex and empathetic examination of generational cycles of abuse and trauma, no one is a straight-up villain.
"The play is much richer and deeper and darker and funnier than I remembered," says Day, a prolific character actor whose theatre credits include Tony-nominated performances in Sweat and Proof, and her Obie-winning turn in Appropriate. "It was all those things before, but I think living 25 years in this world has given us lots of ammunition to understand it even better. Every single night I say thank you before going on because there's never been a play written this way about this subject matter. I have friends who went through similar situations who've come back two or three times, bringing parents and family members. It's a way to start a conversation. I think that says a lot. It's just so beautifully told."
According to Day, this 25th anniversary mounting has been a decade in the making. The actors and director Mark Brokaw discussed it many times over the years, and even did a one-night-only reunion reading of the play in 2013 at the Vineyard Theatre where How I Learned to Drive had premiered in 1997. "Johanna was always part of the plan," says Brokaw, who has also returned to helm the Broadway production.
Initially, aligning the actors' busy schedules was the biggest hurdle. Finally, in spring 2020 they were in rehearsals and two weeks away from their first preview when the pandemic shut down the entire theatre industry for 18 months.
That was a dark time for Day, who acts primarily on stage. She relocated to her home state of Virginia but kept her New York-area apartment thanks to residuals from her recurring role as Ellen Hill on Madam Secretary. Understandably, she worried. When would she work again? And would How I Learned to Drive ever arrive on Broadway? Thankfully, everyone involved in the project was committed to seeing the journey through.
Despite the heavy themes explored in the play, there are funny parts. Day has a hilarious "mother's guide to social drinking" monologue about how to imbibe like a "lady," which an underage L'il Bit recalls as Uncle Peck plies her publicly with alcohol at a restaurant. It's one of many scenes that make you laugh and wince simultaneously.
But Day's most compelling moment is a disturbing monologue delivered directly to the audience by Aunt Mary, who essentially defends her husband Uncle Peck and blames L'il Bit for everything that's happening. "It's really hard for me to say that every night," Day admits. "I get chills down my back. I can always feel that there are people in the audience who want to run up and just stop me from talking. I'm blinded by the spotlight so I can't see, I can only hear. It's never not going to be uncomfortable, but I relish it. I'll hear somebody scoff and I'll aim the words in their direction and shut them up."
As hard as How I Learned to Drive is for the audience, it's even more challenging for the actors. "Jill Biden came to the play last Sunday and the first thing she said was, 'I think this is going to take me a while to process. How do you guys come down from doing this?' And we were all like, 'Booze!'" says Day with a laugh. "Seriously though, to survive this we have to be irreverent."
Yet Day doesn't want it to end. She talks hopefully about an extension (which came through! It's now running through Sunday, June 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) and says the cast has mused about a future reunion production. "Twenty-five years might be a little overambitious," she says. "I know I'd be on a gurney if I'm even still alive!" But it speaks to the piece's timeless power that both actors and audiences keep returning to it. "I'm just so honored to be a part of this play," she says. "I know how life-changing it can be for some people."
Top image: David Morse and Johanna Day in Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway production of How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.