In 1997, David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker garnered raves and Off-Broadway awards in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive.
25 years later, Morse and Parker reprized their roles on Broadway – he as Uncle Peck, a charming pedophile; her as Li’l Bit, the niece he’s chasing – and garnered Tony nominations.
The new production was first explored a decade after its first run, but Morse had yet to return to the stage and didn’t want his last play to be his next. And while the timing seemed right when he signed onto the show two years ago — he’d since appeared on Broadway in The Seafarer and The Iceman Cometh — he was still intimidated by the impact, which was simultaneously stunning and heartbreaking , the original in both audience and cast.
He was particularly worried about Uncle Peck.
“I thought he didn’t stand a chance in this new world,” Morse said. “Paula tried to make him a compelling and understandable person, despite everything he does, and I was afraid of the judgments about him. It would just be too difficult to make the leap that Paula wanted people to do.”
He needn’t have worried, Morse admitted during a Zoom interview from his Midtown apartment — he lives in Philadelphia when he’s not working — to discuss why daily devotions, cooking his own food and his new RV in are essential to his life.
“The piece has the power it always had, and our age actually helped in a way,” he said. “There are layers that weren’t there before, and I think that just comes from having lived a bit.”
Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
1. Read aloud When I read a book, I read it aloud from beginning to end. I get to play all the characters and be in their world. I discovered this joy when I was about 9 or 10. I finished reading Old Yeller in my bedroom on a Saturday morning. I lay in my bed with pain in my heart and crying. I had to share the book with my family. So we sat around the dining table and I read to them and cried my way through the end of “Old Yeller” one more time.
2. His Faith As a teenager, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But when I first came to New York in 1977, I was very at odds with the faith and the Church. My consciousness shifted and I became angry with institutions. At this point I was reading “Surprised by Joy” by CS Lewis. His story of his own struggles with faith helped me through a particularly turbulent time. Sometime during those years I memorized the daily morning and evening devotionals from the Book of Common Prayer. Since then I have not missed a single day to discuss both services privately.
3. Bluegrass and Country I made a great movie called The Slaughter Rule and my character was a lover of old time bluegrass and country. I had to play and sing, and every time I opened my mouth I felt like a swindler. It wasn’t a bright moment for me, but I’ve loved it ever since.
Back then we were listening to the Louvin Brothers. Her story is fascinating. Now there are women I like to listen to and people who cross paths like Brandi Carlile. And Sturgill Simpson is another one I love because he’s kind of anti-country and anti-country at the same time. He really loves the roots of bluegrass but does his own thing with it.
4. “Cocaine & Strass” podcast People who really know music, who talk to other people who really know music, fascinate me. One of my favorites is Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine & Rhinestones. It’s an epic one-man production about the history of country music. I think I would have approached the music in The Slaughter Rule with a little more courage if I could have heard his work before I made it.
5. Cooking for health I have had significant food intolerances for most of my life. Forget the craft table on sets. Most restaurants, when trying to be helpful, offer food that is so plain and boring it’s hard to swallow. So I prepare pretty much every meal I eat every day of my life. I developed my own recipe for wheat free pancakes and made weekly batches that I would take anywhere to get enough calories when I was working or traveling. I did that for at least 25 years.
6. Driving for work I love to drive alone to far away places when I get a new job. It’s a great way to change my mind. When it came time to do How I Learned to Drive two years ago, I made a trip to South Carolina because that’s where the character is from. I went to the rivers where he went fishing, went to the courthouse and listened to the trials, just trying to absorb as much of this world as possible. And it started to feel new. Then they switch off during rehearsals. But when it started up again, I took another journey just to be open, open, open to whatever is to come.
7. His Mercedes Sprinter camper I’ve always wanted to share the places I’ve seen with my wife Susan [Wheeler Duff], and our three children, but food and hotels were too big a challenge for us to do together—until last year. Susan ingeniously suggested getting us an RV to travel with. So, during the pandemic, we bought an upgraded Mercedes Sprinter van and joined a long line of like-minded people to have it converted into an RV near Boulder, Colorado. In September we picked up our new best friend and drove across the country with a king bed, a full kitchen and a toilet that we haven’t used yet. It was wonderful.
8. Audio books It’s amazing how much of this country you can cover with “Moby-Dick”. Right now, while I’m working out, I’m listening to Frank McCourt read Angela’s Ashes. His writing seems so pure and effortless, as does his brilliant reading. I was asked to record a number of very good books. Two of my favorites were Stephen King’s Revival and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership: In Turbulent Times. i love doing it It suits me.
9. Accents When I have to work on a new character with an accent, I choose a book to read aloud. I don’t really like practicing the accent with the lines. When we first did How I Learn to Drive, I made my decision [Michael Shaara’s] “The Killer Angels.” I didn’t tell Mary-Louise Parker, but this time I chose the wonderful book Dear Mr. You that she wrote. Please don’t tell her I told you.
10. His wife, Susan Wheeler Duff My wife is many things including an excellent author of two books and many articles, a voracious and avid reader, the passionate and devoted mother of our children, an excellent actress, an emerging and prominent presence in the world of bridge, and my love and companion since 41 years. In fact, we got married on June 19, 1982, exactly 40 years ago today. Every day with Susan is a cultural must.