There are rules to learning how to drive: adjust your mirrors, put on your seatbelt, place your hands at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. But when it comes to adolescence, things get a bit more complicated. In Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” one girl learns about cars, sex, growing up and illicit family affairs.
Set in Maryland in the 1960s, “How I Learned to Drive” is the story of a teen girl, nicknamed “Li’l Bit” by her family, who dreams of getting away from her small town life. An outcast in her family and at school, Li’l Bit is mostly recognized for her bra size rather than her intelligence. The only person she opens up to is her Uncle Peck, a lonely ex-soldier who shows an unnatural interest in her. As their inappropriate relationship continues, Li’l Bit struggles to figure out her relationship to sex and her family.
In the small, sparsely designed Bridge Theatre, Tongue in Cheek Theater Productions presented their production of this play, which ventures into uncomfortable areas of sexuality and unhealthy familial love with some sorrow and bits of unexpected humor. Set up to sound in part like an instructional driving guide, the play consists of flashbacks that take place throughout Li’l Bit’s life, many of which revolve around her driving lessons.
In this, Vogel presents a play with an uneasy but interesting topic and central characters that are so confused and desperate in their desires. The play uses the structure of the driving instructions to jump from scene to scene in Li’l Bit’s life. Unfortunately, in the production, the lack of clear scene breaks causes the scenes to all seem to run together and does not give the audience a moment to readjust to the different settings. Some of the actors also seemed miscast, as the acting did not always stand up as strongly to the humor and emotion of the writing. While Vogel wrote a great deal of teenage confusion and alienation into Li’l Bit’s character, this production’s Li’l Bit seems more of a caricature of adolescence rather than the real thing.
Uncle Peck, a mix of a kind, lovable uncle, a very traumatized ex-soldier and an outright pedophile, draws the audience’s interest as a character who functions at different times—and sometimes the same time—as both the offender and the victim. The dynamic between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit is interesting because it is not always as simple as a case of an older male taking advantage of a young woman. The situation is complicated by feelings of loneliness, insecurity and some manipulation, and the play easily drives right into the neighborhood of taboo topics and invites the audience along for the ride.
Li’l Bit’s mother, her grandmother, her misogynistic grandfather and her aunt, who is in denial of her husband’s affair with Li’l Bit, form the background of this story and provide a couple laughs while representing the life Li’l Bit wants to escape from. All of this is delivered as part of the all-encompassing metaphor about control and escape—the driving lessons themselves.
While the production is certainly sloppy at times, the play is still an interesting work that revels in its discomfort—a play that will drive you to somewhere you may not want to go.
“How I Learned to Drive” is running at the Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios, located at 244 W. 54th St., 12th floor, through Nov. 2. For more information, visit www.tictheater.com.