Review: Family and Forgiveness Define Paula Vogel’s ‘How I Learned to Drive’

By Lauren Van Hemert

Perhaps the real victim in the PlayMakers’ production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is the audience.

Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play tackles the difficult subject of sexual abuse. But the smartly written and suggestive script seduces the audience almost as much if not more so than the young female character at the center of the play. And for many audiences, that may be at the very least disarming and at most troubling, problematic, or even triggering.

The play opens with a now 30-something Li’l Bit recalling her troubled childhood under the watchful “care” of her highly dysfunctional and sexualized family.  “Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson,” Li’l Bit tells the audience. And those consequential life lessons are metaphorically stripped out of a driving rule manual that covers everything from ‘shifting forward’ to ‘implied consent.’

Under the clearheaded, attentive direction of Obie Award-winning director Lee Sunday Evans, the story unfolds steadily. Her directing style is both mindful, controlled, and fluid, underscored only by the rich, nuanced performances in this production.

Julia Gibson’s Li’l Bit is both vulnerable and empowered. She’s a fighter with a “fire in her head,” less a victim than a survivor. Gibson shifts effortlessly between present and past, adolescent and adult Li’l Bit. You get the sense Li’l Bit is going to be all right and she is in Gibson’s capable, versatile hands.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Uncle Peck is richly multi-layered. To dissect his Uncle Peck is akin to describing the mercurial pompano fish his character talks about during one of Li’l Bit’s flashbacks. It takes some psychology for sure, and a study of what is sometimes referred to, at least according to Psychology Today, as the myth of evil. That’s because the way Vogel writes, as heinous as his crimes are, there are moments that Peck invokes sympathy, and that perhaps is the most troubling part of the play. This isn’t To Catch a Predator and the bad guy isn’t waiting in the kitchen about to be caught. It isn’t quite that black and white and that perhaps is the brilliance of the script.

Perhaps if one needs to find a bad guy in Vogel’s play, it might be Aunt Mary, sharply played by Emily Bosco. This Aunt Mary is not only an enabler but even blames Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. Bosco takes on multiple roles throughout the show and even has the distinction of delivering one of the show’s most stirring monologues called “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.” But it is her Aunt Mary that may haunt and provoke the audience the most, which is a testament to Bosco’s fine performance.

How I Learned to Drive is a survivor’s story that beyond its tale of abuse, explores the theme of forgiveness. As a survivor of a sexual assault myself (not by a family member), I can say that the idea of forgiving my attacker stunted my own healing for years. In my mind, forgiving meant condoning. It does not. Forgiving means empowering and freeing yourself to let go and metaphorically speaking, readjusting the rearview mirror and driving forward. That’s the takeaway from Vogel’s play, that’s part of the relevant timely message that resonates whether in the realm of the #metoo movement or not, and that’s just one of the reasons why this play should not be missed.

How I Learned to Drive runs through April 21st at PlayMakers. For more information visit: http://playmakersrep.org/ .

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