The PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, tells the story of sexual abuse in the same way an epidemiologist unravels a deadly contagion: tracing its spread backward then forwards, and identifying victims and carriers in such a clinically detached way that you are lulled into a false sense of security. Maybe this disease is contained … maybe I will not be touched by this….
But it isn’t and you will.
PRC guest director Lee Sunday Evans starts her production in a storage facility, where a strangely silent family are unpacking boxes. This several minutes of “quiet unpacking” creates a sense of disquiet that foreshadows all of the “unpacking” of her childhood memories and choices that Li’l Bit, played by Julia Gibson, will have to do in the next 100 minutes.
Li’l Bit, who was born into a family where everyone seems to have a nickname relating to their genitalia, never had a chance. As she tells it, she comes from the kind of people who will have to answer to God for being a “fornicators, ugly-mean to their relatives, and voting for George Wallace.” Li’l Bit is stuck in this family with no boundaries, where women need only two skills: In the bedroom and in the kitchen. Li’l Bit is desperately looking for a father figure and what she finds in her Uncle Peck, played brilliantly by Jeffrey Blair Cornell, impacts her entire life.
Julia Gibson plays the adolescent Li’l Bit almost better than she plays the adult version. She creates an impression that the character lives more fully in the past than she does in the present, and I’ll admit I was worried about her performance for the first 15-20 minutes of the play.
I found it difficult to connect with her, and there was a kind of “matter-of-fact numbness” about the performance that I didn’t like. But when the pieces started coming together, and I saw how “apart” someone robbed of their childhood would feel, I understood how she was constructing her character, bit by bit. Taken as a whole, Gibson’s performance is remarkable, but it is slow to catch fire, so give it time.
When it first debuted in 1997, playwright Paula Vogel, who thrilled the audience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre by being in attendance for the opening night (April 6th), called this play a “love story about consensual incest” and, indeed, many of the sexually-charged scenes “look” like implied consent.
When Uncle Peck, says, “I will never do anything you don’t want me to,” you can almost believe that the 17-year-old Li’l Bit is consenting — that it isn’t so bad, because he isn’t a blood relative (he’s her uncle by marriage) and maybe it IS a sick kind of love story.
But when Li’l Bit is 13, and has agreed to let her uncle take pictures of her in his basement, this lie with which you’ve been insulating yourself gets harder to swallow; but still there is this little voice that says, “She IS sort of the instigator here; she DOES seem to like the attention; and, yeah, she is 13, but she seems really advanced for 13….”
And this is the genius of this masterful play: It makes us all complicit. You don’t question why she might be so advanced for 13. You don’t question why it feels more natural to blame the child for not saying no, than it does to blame the man responsible.
Uncle Peck, the man responsible, is a master class in pedophilia and child grooming. Jeffrey Blair Cornell is superb. His Southern accent is as charming as peach pie on a porch swing; and his performance is so full of humor and vulnerability that you can see how he and everyone else might believe that he is not a monster, but simply a man ruled by the “fire in his heart.”
How I Learned to Drive is structured like a classic Greek play, with a chorus whose members play multiple roles and talk directly to the audience. Gabriella Cila, who plays the Teenage Greek Chorus (Grandmother, High School girl, Li’l Bit at age 11), is outstanding as the 11-year-old Li’l Bit. I think watching the light go out of her eyes on stage will haunt me for quite some time.
Emily Bosco, Female Greek Chorus (Mother, Aunt Mary, High School Girl), delivers one of the rawest and most impactful monologues that I’ve ever heard as Aunt Mary. Dan Toot, Male Greek Chorus (Grandfather, Waiter, High School Boy), might ought to consider a career in the NSA (National Security Agency), because he changed so completely for every role, I thought it was multiple actors for at least half of the show.
At one point Uncle Peck tells Li’l Bit that he will teach her to “Drive like a man.” He tells her, “Men are taught to drive with confidence — with aggression. The road belongs to them….”; and in a shocking bit of insight, he concludes by telling her everything she needs to know to save herself from him: “Women tend to be polite — to hesitate and that can be fatal.”
Experiencing How I Learned to Drive in this age of the #metoo movement, gives us an odd kind of hope: One where you think maybe now we are finally ready to stop hesitating — to stop being polite. Maybe now we can recognize the damage patriarchy, misogyny, and female blame have caused — and our part in that. Maybe we are ready to look at the sexualization of girls and women with a fresh set of eyes and make the changes that will throw our society from Reverse into Drive. And that maybe the lesson that we can all take away from PlayMakers Rep’s presentation of How I Learned to Drive is that we can all move forward to someplace better.
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 10th Triangle Review review by Melanie Simmons, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/04/a-fascinating-and-ultimately-forgiving-journey-prcs-how-i-learned-to-drive-hits-a-few-potholes/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at 7:30 p.m. April 9-12, 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 an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9th.
NOTE 3: 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 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th (for more information, click here).
NOTE 5: 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).
Nicole Noel is a former U.S. Army journalist-turned-Technical Knowledge Manager, with a love for the arts. At age seven, she wrote her first story on the wall of her basement after being told the family might have to move: “There once was a girl named Nicole who had a dog named Rat and they lived in this house.” She liked the way that you could capture a moment in a sentence, and still does. These days Nicole lives with her daughter, and a dog named Buffy, in a house in Fuquay-Varina. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.