If only it weren't for that damn rear-view mirror, perhaps Li'l Bit could put the ugly secrets of her past behind her and journey on with her life. But every time she glances into her car's mirror, the prickly shards of her teen years litter the view like broken glass spread across a scenic highway. How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the ravaging and lingering effects of pedophilia, is an original and compelling work. Part love story, part coming-of-age tale, the memory play owes its existence to a simple premise put forth by playwright Vogel: "We all learn to drive at an age when our hormones are raging."
Although viewers never learn Li'l Bit's real name, we do come to know that she has grown up fatherless in rural Maryland in a family that affords her no comfort. Her grandfather, in particular, verbally ridicules her developing body. Li'l Bit finds a surrogate father in Uncle Peck. An Army veteran whose very walk evokes "the steel of the military," Uncle Peck is her mother's brother-in-law; he is not blood kin. Uncle Peck is a seemingly decent man, but he possesses one fatal flaw: He preys on children. In the 1960s, while taking his eleven-year-old niece for a ride through the back roads, he seduces her.
So, through a series of flashbacks, we see this relationship revealed. "Nothin's gonna happen till you want it to," Uncle Peck cajoles her with a disquieting comfort. By all that popular convention has taught us, we should condemn his intentions as perverse. Yet by evening's end, and as the years progress, don't be surprised if Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck have reversed roles. She becomes the tormentor; he, the victim. Vogel has said that she sought to tell a Lolita story from Lolita's point of view, and the naive Lil' Bit is clearly drawn from Nabokov's quixotic heroine.
Ultimately, the incendiary How I Learned to Drive elicits an intensely personal response from the viewer. How could it be otherwise when a pedophile becomes a figure of empathy? And how are we to react when Li'l Bit transitions from victim to temptress? Vogel keeps the ambivalence front and center by presenting the story as simply as possible: two chairs, a table. In this spare manner, the action mostly plays out in our own imaginations (which is to suggest that no two viewers see quite the same play).
Directed by Milton Zoth, the current staging by Muddy Waters Theatre honors Vogel's intentions. From the opening chords of Mama Cass singing "Dedicated to the One I Love" to the post-curtain call playoff of Roy Orbison's "Dream Baby," the breathless pitch of this raw, 90-minute intermissionless scab seems spot-on. B. Weller enacts Uncle Peck without a scintilla of attitude. He is neither good nor bad; there's no leer or sneer. Weller's Peck is like a glass of clear water, to which the viewer must bring the coloring and the flavoring. Make of him what you will; he will not dispute what you find.
If Li'l Bit exists in both the past and the present, so too does Laurie McConnell's mercurial portrayal. Glimpses of earlier performances vaguely echo through her provocative new creation. Here are revelatory traces of McConnell's sensuous Stella from the 2003 HotHouse staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Just as Stella's inherent sexuality could make mush of the otherwise-volatile Stanley Kowalski, so too does Li'l Bit ultimately command the situations here. We also sense inklings of McConnell's no-nonsense Truvy in Steel Magnolias. McConnell's beauty-shop owner was the motor that propelled the 2010 Dramatic License production forward. Once again, it is McConnell who keeps this play so effortlessly on message. Li'l Bit is told to "get in the driver's seat," and McConnell does. She sees to it that our minds do not wander, our eyes do not stray. We remain focused on things perhaps more comfortably unseen. And then, as with the most serious theater, How I Learned to Drive sends us home with much to ponder.
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