Though Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive first debuted in 1997 and takes place much earlier- in the 1960s- its themes about rape, consent, and the abuse of power are all too relevant today. In fact, in some ways, they seem even more relevant than they did when the show first premiered. PlayMakers Repertory Company seems to understand the relevancy of this production, as does skilled director, Lee Sunday Evans, who presents the show’s often-difficult themes with gentleness and, for the most part, a subtlety that makes most of the jarring scenes a little easier to handle…though not so much easier as to dull their effect.
In fact, many moments in the show, which details a young girl named Li’l Bit’s (Julia Gibson) improperly balanced relationship with her adult Uncle Peck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), are so tough to watch that viewers have to look away. However, being hard to watch does not mean that this story isn’t one that deserves to be explored.
As Li’l Bit, who recounts her relationship as an adult, looks back on the terrible things she experienced, she doesn’t do so in a woe-is-me type of way. And, though she very much was a victim, it is clear that Li’l Bit no longer views herself in that light. Vogel has used this character’s story and newfound outlook to send a message of hope and to act as a “survival guide” of sorts to anyone who may be navigating a similar path.
Vogel’s script jumps back and forth in time, recounting many of the telling moments in Li’l Bit’s life, but Evans’ clever staging and subtle visual cues always make it easy to nail down place and time. And, while these details are important, the main thing viewers will focus on are the strong performances given by the leads. Gibson gives a sympathetic, tear-inducing portrayal of Li’l Bit, though she knows just where to find and insert her character’s strength.
Cornell, on the other hand, is all too convincing as Uncle Peck. In fact, it will be hard to “unsee” this character on Cornell since he plays it so well. Embodying such a difficult role and doing it well is quite the amazing feat, especially since Cornell does manage to make the character appear somewhat human…though he never crosses the line into “sympathetic.” The script and Cornell’s portrayal make it clear that there are reasons for Uncle Peck’s foul actions, though neither attempt to excuse them in any way. It’s a fine line to walk, but this production manages to walk it well, asking viewers to draw their own observations and judgments, instead of forcing one particular outlook upon them.
Overall, this is a tenuous, tough show. It is not necessarily fun to watch, but it is important and powerful, which is what theatre ultimately should be. Backed by a gifted “Greek Chorus” that fills in roles when needed, perfect lighting cues, and a disturbing but honest script, this show will speak volumes to viewers. What, exactly, it will speak, will depend largely on perspective and past experience, but the production should take everyone on a personal journey of sorts.
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).
Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.triangleartsreview.com/, http://www.susiepotter.com, and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.