PlayMakers Repertory Company closes its dynamic 2018-19 season with Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive. This dauntless play cleverly combines a modern-day driver’s education theme with classic Greek drama elements, creating a winding narrative that follows main character Li’l Bit (played by Julia Gibson) throughout her tumultuous life and the characters that shaped her. Most prominent is Uncle Peck (portrayed by Jeffrey Blair Cornell), who developed and fostered a deeply unnatural relationship with his niece, which literally drives the story through all its bumps and curves. And while the audience certainly is taken on a fascinating and ultimately forgiving journey, this particular production is not without a few potholes.
(WARNING: SPOILERS: The content of this play — and by extension, this review — contains subject matter that may be triggering for some people.)
The opening moments are engrossing, as a steel commercial door creaks open and the lights come up slowly, revealing a backdrop of warehouse shelves packed with boxes. Actors appear with languid solemnity, taking their time to wander around and poke through boxes and their contents, sometimes rustling through them and putting them back, other times bringing them downstage and opening them up for the audience to see.
When Li’l Bit finally takes center stage and enters the story, we almost got the sense of someone speaking up in a library. She certainly commanded attention, but she was almost a bit intrusive. Which may have been the point.
Li’l Bit’s story is one of invasion and sexual abuse, indirectly by her family (the least of their flaws being a proclivity for nicknaming family members after their genitalia), and more directly by her Uncle Peck, the only other named character in the show. A chorus of three actors — one male, two female — provide all the other characters who swirl around Li’l Bit’s formative years.
As important as those voices are to Li’l Bit, as she tries to navigate the crudity of her family, and the cruelty of her friends, as she “blossoms” early in adolescence, she keeps coming back to Uncle Peck. Uncle Peck is both father figure and confidant, as well as a disturbed war vet with his own damage (mentioned, but never explored), fueling the demons that drive him to misuse the trust of a young girl trying to find herself in a confusing world.
Jeffrey Blair Cornell shines here as Uncle Peck, approaching the manipulations of a sexual predator with a gentle persuasiveness that allows his character to be sympathetic without justifying his actions in the least. Uncle Peck somehow managed to discuss holding his niece on the day that she was born with the same affection as when he was describing her breasts as he fondled them. This effect, while striking, undermined much of the humor, so that some of the dialogue designed to lighten the show at specific moments got a bit lost. The audience tittered uncomfortably rather than experienced the humorous release that could have balanced the intensity of the subject matter.
Julia Gibson performs powerfully as the central voice of a mature Li’l Bit, looking back on her life; but Gibson struggled somewhat to adequately convey the different ages of her character. Perhaps, wardrobe is partly to blame here — while the Chorus members and even Uncle Peck enjoyed costume changes that were age-, character-, and period-appropriate, Gibson inexplicably remained more or less in the same modern-day outfit as when she first stepped on stage. This left her reliant on physicality and vocal modulations to change ages, which got a bit confusing as the timeline jumps around like a stone skipping across a pond.
Gabriella Cila (Teenage Greek Chorus) would have done better to step in for the youngest iterations of Li’l Bit; indeed, she does so at one point, as the older persona watches on, with such great impact that one might wish this technique had been more utilized throughout the play.
Another factor that kept this production from keeping the audience fully engrossed was the staging in general. PlayMakers Rep’s massive main stage did well to thrust the actors deep into the audience, but the sheer size of it worked against the intimacy of the story telling.
Lee Sunday Evans’ insightful direction, together with Barbara Samuels’ clever lighting design, did a commendable job of creating isolated spaces for the more penetrating scenes. The flow of the blocking kept the staging dynamic and intriguing, but it simply could not make up for the overall expansiveness of the Paul Green Theatre’s space. Instead of feeling that they were in the car with Li’l Bit on her complex journey, the audience was left outside looking in. At that, it was no short journey; the show runs a robust 100 minutes, without intermission.
How I Learned to Drive, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1997, is still a powerful play today, during an era when women are realizing that silence is no longer an option. Rounded out by the vigorous talents of a vivacious Emily Bosco (Female Greek Chorus) and Dan Toot (Male Greek Chorus, whose versatility in flowing through distinct characters especially stood out), this show is a worthy addition to the PlayMakers‘ commitment to dauntless storytelling. Major kudos go to the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s thoughtfulness towards anyone dealing with the subjects touched on in the play. Not only is the program full of information and local resources, but a safe room staffed with trained therapists is also provided for audience members to use after the show and process what they’ve experienced, either inside the theater or in their own lives. This production runs through Sunday, April 21st.
SECOND OPINION: April 4th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright Paula Vogel and director Lee Sunday Evans, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: https://www.wunc.org/post/pulitzer-prize-winning-drama-still-zings-metoo-era; April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Mary Mac Porter: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2019/04/paula-vogel and April 1st preview by Caroline Kloster: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2019/04/how-i-learned-to-drive-0401; and April 3rd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/how-i-learned-to-drive/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the April 9th Triangle Review review by Nicole Noel, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/04/paula-vogels-how-i-learned-to-drive-at-playmakers-rep-explores-problems-in-how-women-are-valued/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at 7:30 p.m. April 10-12, 2 p.m. April 13 and 14, 7:30 p.m. April 16-20, and 2 p.m. April 21 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 and up students).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/how-i-learned-to-drive/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1126183914250631/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaQ8J3LVsBA.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-presents-paula-vogels-how-i-learned-to-drive/.
2018-19 SEASON (Shifting Ground: Theatre That Moves): http://playmakersrep.org/season/2018-2019/
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen and http://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/paul-green-theatre/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 10th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14th, performances.
NOTE 3: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th (for more information, click here).
NOTE 4: The Psychoanalytic Center of the Carolinas will sponsor a FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion after the show’s 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th, performance.
How I Learned to Drive (1997 Off-Broadway play and 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2683 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/371 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_I_Learned_to_Drive (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://web.sonoma.edu/theatreanddance/productions/sgs/learned-drive_sg.html (Sonoma State University).
Paula Vogel (Washington, DC-born playwright and screenwriter): http://paulavogelplaywright.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/paula-vogel/ (PRC bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/2738 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/paula-vogel-111634 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0900946/ (Internet Movie Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paula_Vogel (Wikipedia).
Lee Sunday Evans (guest director from New York City): http://leesundayevans.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/lee-sunday-evans/ (PRC bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/44273 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/lee-sunday-evans-498444 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://twitter.com/leesundayevans (Twitter page).