David Morse Steadies Himself With Daily Devotions and His Own Cooking

In 1997 David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker racked up raves and Off Broadway awards in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive.”

Twenty-five years later, Morse and Parker reprised their roles on Broadway — he as Uncle Peck, a charming pedophile; she as Li’l Bit, the niece he preys on — and captured Tony nominations.

The new production was first explored a decade after the initial run, but Morse had yet to return to the stage and didn’t want his last play to be his next one. And while the timing seemed right when he committed to this show two years ago — he’d since appeared on Broadway in “The Seafarer” and “The Iceman Cometh” — he was nonetheless intimidated by the impact, at once stunning and gut-wrenching , of the original on both audiences and the cast.

He was especially concerned for Uncle Peck.

“I thought he doesn’t stand a chance in this new world,” Morse said. “Paula tried to make him a compelling and understandable human being despite what he does, and I was afraid of the judgments about him. It would just be too hard to make that leap that Paula wanted people to make.”

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 are imperatives in his life.

“The play has the power it always had, and our ages have actually helped in some ways,” he said. “There are layers that weren’t there before, and I think that really just comes with having lived some life.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. Reading Out Loud Whenever I read a book, I read it out loud from beginning to end. I get to act all of 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 aching in my heart and crying. I had to share the book with my family. So we sat around the dining room table and I read to them, crying my way through the end of “Old Yeller” all over again.

2. His Faith I was confirmed in the Episcopal church in my teens. But when I first came to New York, in 1977, I was very much at odds with faith and the church. My consciousness was changing and I had a fury at institutions. It was at that point that I read CS Lewis’s “Surprised by Joy.” His story his about his own struggles with faith helped me through a particularly turbulent time. Sometime in those years I memorized the daily devotions for morning and close of day from the Book of Common Prayer. Since then, I have pretty much not missed a day saying both services in private.

3. Bluegrass and Country I did a terrific 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 such a phony. It was not a shining moment for me, but I have loved it ever since.

At the time we were listening to the Louvin Brothers. Their story is fascinating. Now there are women I like to listen to and people that kind of cross over like Brandi Carlile. And Sturgill Simpson is another one I love because he’s sort of anti-country and country at the same time. He really, really loves the roots of bluegrass but he does his own thing with it.

4. “Cocaine & Rhinestones” Podcast People who really know music, talking to other people who really know music, are fascinating to me. One of my favorites is “Cocaine & Rhinestones” by Tyler Mahan Coe. It is a one-man epic 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 had had his work his to listen to before I did it.

5. Cooking for Health I have had significant food sensitivities most of my life. Forget the craft table on sets. Most restaurants, when they try to be helpful, offer food that is so plain and boring it is 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, which I would carry with me everywhere so I could get enough calories when I was working or traveling. I did that for 25 years at least.

6. Road Trips for Work I love to drive on my own to faraway locations when I get a new job. It’s a great way to transition my mind. When it came time to do “How I Learned to Drive” two years ago, I took a trip down to South Carolina because it’s where the character is from. I went to the rivers where he would go fishing, went to the courthouse and listened to trials, just tried to absorb as much of that world as I could. And it started feeling new. Then they shut down during rehearsals. But once it was starting again, I took another trip just to be open, open, open to whatever comes.

7. His Mercedes Sprinter RV I have always wanted to share the places I have seen with my wife, Susan [Wheeler Duff], and our three kids, but food and hotels have been too much of a challenge for us to do it together — until this past year. Susan ingeniously suggested we get an RV to travel in. So during the pandemic we bought an extended Mercedes Sprinter van and got in a long line of like-minded people to have it customized into a camper out near Boulder, Colo. In September, we picked up our new best friend, and we set off across the country with a king-size bed, a full kitchen and a toilet we still haven’t used. It was glorious.

8. Audiobooks It’s amazing how much of this country you can cover listening to “Moby-Dick.” Right now, while I work out, I am listening to Frank McCourt read “Angela’s Ashes.” His writing seems so pure and effortless, as does his brilliant reading of it. I have been asked to record a number of very good books. Two of my favorites have been Stephen King’s “Revival” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.” I love doing it. It fits me.

9. Accents When I have to work on a new character with an accent, I will choose a book to read out loud. I don’t really like to practice the accent with the lines. The first time we did “How I Learned to Drive” I chose [Michael Shaara’s] “The Killer Angels.” I haven’t told Mary-Louise Parker this, but this time I chose the wonderful book she wrote called “Dear Mr. You.” Please don’t tell her I told you.

10. His Wife, Susan Wheeler Duff My wife is many things, including an excellent writer of two books and many articles, a voracious and keen reader, the fierce and devoted mother of our children, an excellent actress, a rising and prominent presence in the world of bridge, and my love and companion for the past 41 years. In fact, we were married on June 19, 1982, 40 years ago this very day. Any day with Susan is a cultural essential.

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