Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive won her a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998. The play tells the story of a woman nicknamed Li’l Bit as she comes to terms with a relationship with her sexually abusive Uncle Peck as she reflects on incidents that occurred throughout her adolescence. Perhaps the frank subject matter was groundbreaking for its time, or perhaps the Pulitzer judging panel was impressed with the way Vogel uses driving metaphors throughout. But based on this inept production, it’s difficult to see why How I Learned to Drive is considered an acclaimed play.
The current production at The Sherry Theatre in North Hollywood is fairly bare-bones in its simplistic staging.
The story follows the strained, sexual relationship between Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck, from her pre-adolescence through her teenage years into college and beyond. Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation.
Vogel’s play focuses on the progress of Li’l Bit (Meg Wallace) as she ages from 11 and 18. As the script is a memory play told largely out of chronological order, it jumps around a lot. Unfortunately the story points are difficult to track thanks to this jumpy timeline. Lacking a father at home, the young girl’s uncle Peck (Lane Wray) steps in to counsel Li’l Bit and teach her practical things, such as their numerous driving lessons. Throughout her adolescent years, we witness many encounters between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, as his affections for her intensify. Meanwhile, other family members comment on the action, forming a kind of Female Greek Chorus (Kathy Bell Denton) a Male Greek Chorus (performed alternatively by Mikel Farber and Jael Saran), and a Teenage Greek Chorus (performed alternatively by Sophia Gonzales and Sage Porter). The voice of driving instructor (John Ogden) illuminated in an upstage TV set-like box occasionally announces the chapters of the play as driving instructions. Unfortunately, the “Greek chorus” element was entirely confusing as to who was who or even why they were commenting.
As per the original production notes, some casting is done without literal regard for the characters’ ages. This production suffers from poor direction that includes the lack of exploration of the complexities of the piece, lackluster performances from the majority of the cast and excruciatingly sluggish pacing. Also, please don’t make a trio of your cast members sing if they cannot carry a harmonious tune.
Meg Wallace is good at conveying the awkwardness and discomfort of a young teenager who enjoys the friendship and interest of her uncle but squirms at his ever-intrusive attention and downright molestation. Lane Wray does a good job of presenting Uncle Beck as a loving uncle as well as a man fixated on his own selfish needs; a kindly father-figure more than a two-dimensional monster. The driving instructor boxed-in upstage could have been replaced with a video projection.
The strength of the play lies in the patterns of the relationship between the young niece and her uncle, navigating degrees of responsibility, and murky feelings of guilt and shifts in power. Unfortunately the play lacks the dramatic power of the similarly-themed Blackbird; a far superior work by Scottish playwright David Harrower first staged in 2005.
Vogel’s play is more a psychological study than a theatrical endeavor. What new information does the audience have at the end that we weren’t given at the beginning? Everything seems to end exactly where it began.
There is no redemption nor payoff. The play leaves audience feeling bitter and wondering what was the play’s intended goal. Is the goal to convey a story about survival tactics and hope? Because we don’t even get that.
How I Learned to Drive. The Pulitzer Prize winning play.
Written by Paula Vogel. Directed by Steve Jarrard. Presented by Collaborative Artists Ensemble.
11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601.
Performances: February 17- March 19, 2023. Fri. & Sat. at 8:00, Sun. at 7:00pm.
ADMISSION: $30. Seniors and students with I.D., $20.
RESERVATIONS: (323) 860-6569.
ONLINE TICKETING: howilearnedtodrive.brownpapertickets.com
ESTIMATED RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 40 minutes. No intermission.
CONSUMER ADVISORY: Mature themes. Suggested for audiences age 13 to Adult.
Li’l Bit (Meg Wallace)
Uncle Peck (Lane Wray)
Female Greek Chorus – Kathy Bell Denton,
Male Greek Chorus – Mikel Farber and Jael Saran
Teenage Greek Chorus – Sophia Gonzales and Sage Porter
Voice of Driving Instructor – John Ogden