Disturbing Theater, 20 Years Later: How I Learned to Drive Is About Drinking, Driving and Sexual Abuse

How I Learned to Drive isn’t a play for the squeamish. It’s a disturbing and ultimately sad story about pedophilia, sexual abuse, drinking and driving. It illustrates how the predator sometimes gets help from complicit family members and even the victim. Paula Vogel’s 1997 play, directed by Kayla Adams at the Artistic Home, won several awards (including the 1998 Pulitzer), ran for almost a year off-Broadway, and is as fresh and relevant as it was 20 years ago. Vogel's language is poetic and the events realistic. In the 1960s, L’il Bit (Elizabeth Birnkrant) is a high school student and teller of her own story in scrambled time sequences. Her memory play introduces her close-knit oversexed South Carolina family and her own yearnings to escape their clutches and go away to college. Even as a young teenager, she is endowed with large breasts. She’s sensitive about her breasts and avoids activities that result in “jiggling.” Like running and dancing. Boys tease her and men want to fondle her. The man who does is Uncle Peck (John Mossman), who “loved her from the day she was born,” but especially once she began to blossom. Their experiences together are the core of How I Learned to Drive, which is about driving lessons and a lot more. Uncle Peck, married to Aunt Mary, L’il Bit’s mother’s sister, teaches L’il Bit to drive, to drink hard liquor and eventually to reject her own sexuality. L’il Bit’s story jumps back and forth in time, as memory sometimes does as it reveals itself out of sequence. In one scene, she’s 43, loves to drive and drink—while driving. She remembers the photo shoot in Peck’s basement, where he photographs her barely wearing lingerie. (His pinups—coy and flirty Varga Girls—are projected on the rear wall.) L’il Bit is 13. One of the final—and most disturbing scenes—is Peck teaching L’il Bit to drive, sitting on his lap. She’s 11. As in many stories, more than one person is to blame. Peck is in many ways a good man. He helps people out, washes dishes for his wife, teaches his nephew Bobby to fish (with a disturbing conclusion). L’il Bit’s family, especially Aunt Mary, know what’s going on with Peck and his niece. They are complicit. And L’il Bit herself loves her uncle and flirts with him in an increasingly mature way. Vogel titles the three other actors as the Greek chorus. Reid Coker plays the Male Greek Chorus (L’il Bit’s grandfather, Big Papa, plus a waiter and other characters). Jenna Steege plays Female Greek Chorus (L’il Bit’s mother, Aunt Mary and others). And Kelley Holcomb plays Teenage Greek Chorus (she plays L’il Bit’s grandmother, who complains of being chased around the house by a horny Big Papa). Steege does a very funny monologue, coaching L’il Bit how to drink when out with a date. (And it’s good advice for any drinker.)
A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking A lady never gets sloppy—she may, however, get tipsy and a little gay. Never drink on an empty stomach. Avail yourself of the bread basket and generous portions of butter…. Sip your drink slowly…. Never slurp or gulp. Your glass should always be three-quarters full when his glass is empty. Stay away from ladies’ drinks: drinks like pink ladies, sloe gin fizzes, daiquiris, gold cadillacs, Long Island iced teas, margaritas, pina coladas…. In short, avoid anything with sugar and anything with an umbrella. Drink like a man, straight up or on the rocks, with plenty of water in between. And never mix your drinks. Stay with one all night.
L’il Bit narrates her own story, announcing the date for what will happen next. Scenes are punctuated with titles from driver education programs and spoken by a voice that sounds like a driver ed film. Idling in the Neutral Gear. You and the Reverse Gear. Shifting Forward from Second to Third Gear. Birnkrant and Mossman do credible jobs as L’il Bit and Peck. Steege is particularly strong as Mom and other characters. Kevin Rolfs’ set design is very basic platforms plus a few pieces of furniture; Mark Bracken's projections add a great deal to the setting. Zack Berinstein handles sound design and original music. Paula Vogel says she was fascinated by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, about an aging professor’s affair with a young “nymphet” he calls Lolita. Vogel read it several times in her teens and 20s. She said in a 1997 interview, “I didn’t stop thinking about what would happen if a woman wrote the story from Lolita’s point of view.” Vogel’s other plays include Indecent, A Civil War Christmas, The Baltimore Waltz and Desdemona. How I Learned to Drive at the Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave., has been extended through May 20. The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Buy tickets for $28-32 (senior and student discounts available).
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.