How I Learned to Drive
|How I Learned to Drive|
|Written by||Paula Vogel|
Male Greek Chorus
Female Greek Chorus
Teenage Greek Chorus
|Date premiered||March 16, 1997|
|Place premiered||Vineyard Theatre
New York City, United States
How I Learned to Drive is a play written by the American playwright Paula Vogel. The play premiered on March 16, 1997, Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Vogel received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work. It was written and developed at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, with Molly Smith as artistic director.
The story follows the strained, sexual relationship between Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck, from her adolescence through her teenage years into college and beyond. Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation.
The play tells the story of a woman nicknamed Li'l Bit as she comes to terms with her sexually abusive relationship with her Uncle Peck throughout her adolescence. Aside from Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck, a Greek Chorus of three is on hand to play all of the other characters in their lives. The script is a memory play told largely out of chronological order, with the first scene taking place in 1969 in a parking lot in rural Maryland. Li'l Bit is 17 years old and sitting in Uncle Peck's car. Peck unhooks her brassiere through her shirt, an act that Li'l Bit finds uncomfortable. Li'l Bit mentions she is graduating high school and going to a "fancy college" in the fall, while Uncle Peck continues to admire her body.
Li'l Bit breaks from this scene to describe her family to the audience. She explains her family's penchant for handing out nicknames based on genitalia, which is why she was branded with the alias Li'l Bit for life. This includes her alcoholic mother, the "titless wonder", her misogynistic grandfather "Big Papa", her submissive grandmother, and her young Cousin BB (Blue Balls). A typical family dinner in 1969 has Li'l Bit's family (played by the three Greek Chorus members) cracking jokes about how "well-endowed" she is. Peck is the only family member who supports Li'l Bit's dreams of going to school. Frustrated, Li'l Bit leaves the dinner after Grandfather goes too far with his insults. Peck's wife Mary (Li'l Bit's maternal aunt) asks him to comfort Li'l Bit, indicating that she (Mary) is ignorant of his abuse.
Li'l Bit reveals that she eventually lost her scholarship and was expelled from college because of a drinking problem. She spent most of that year driving on highways, marveling at how well Peck had taught her to drive. She then has a memory of 1968, where Uncle Peck takes her to a fancy Eastern Shore restaurant as a reward for passing her driver's test on the first try. Peck slyly orders oysters and martinis for Li'l Bit to consume, while the girl's mother gives less than stellar advice on drinking alcohol. Li'l Bit and her mother both become increasingly drunk on martinis. Peck carries the drunk Li'l Bit to his car, lays her down, and propositions her. He immediately backs off when Li'l Bit drunkenly begs him not to touch her. He says he will wait for her to say it's OK.
The Teenage Greek Chorus member briefly takes over to introduce a memory that is not Li'l Bit's. In a monologue, Uncle Peck gives the unseen Cousin BB a fishing lesson, where it is strongly implied that he uses this as a cover to molest the boy the same way he used driving to abuse Li'l Bit. Li'l Bit takes control once again to recount a conversation she had with her mother and grandmother about sex. Mother tries to be helpful in explaining topics such as orgasms and consent, while Grandmother wails that Li'l Bit is too young to know about sex and uses scare tactics to keep her from doing it until she is married. The adult Li'l Bit breaks the memory to explain that she went on to have a one-night stand with a seventeen-year-old boy while she was twenty-seven, experiencing the allure of young flesh that her uncle once felt. She then returns to the memory, which turns into an argument between Mother and the Grandparents. Unable to deal with that memory again, Li'l Bit changes the memory (as part of the driving metaphor, she likens this to changing stations on the radio) to when Uncle Peck first taught her how to start up a car. Showing that he does have genuine concern for Li'l Bit beyond her body, Peck gives reasonable advice on how to be safe on the road. Li'l Bit becomes confused as to how Peck could abuse her while still being helpful.
The next scene is a series of vignettes on Li'l Bit's school days in 1966, where she faced ridicule and sexual harassment from the other students on account of her large breasts. A boy asks her to dance at a school sock hop, but Li'l Bit refuses, implying that her experiences with men have left her wary.
The scenes shifts to 1965, where Uncle Peck takes provocative "pin-up" photos of Li'l Bit. Aunt Mary takes the stage to defend her husband's actions to the audience. She claims that he is a good man, and that it is all Li'l Bit's fault for leading him on. She believes that her marriage can be saved as soon as her niece goes off to college.
On Christmas Day 1964, 13-year-old Li'l Bit helps Uncle Peck wash the dishes. It is there that Peck gets the idea to take Li'l Bit out driving once a week in order to continue molesting her. Li'l Bit agrees to this arrangement, despite her confusion towards Peck's relationship with her.
The scene flashes forward to 1969, Li'l Bit's freshman year of college. The Greek Chorus lists the letters and gifts that Peck sends her, with each note counting down how many days are left until her 18th birthday. Startled by how unhinged her uncle has become, Li'l Bit arranges a meeting in a Philadelphia hotel room on December 10, 1969. Li'l Bit yells at Uncle Peck for becoming so possessive, while he insists that his niece is the love of his life. Li'l Bit reveals that the years of trauma from Peck has finally caught up with her, leading to her not focusing in school and failing her courses. After he kneels and proposes to Li'l Bit, vowing to divorce Aunt Mary, Li'l Bit turns him down and cuts him out of her life for good. She never sees Peck again after she leaves the hotel room.
Li'l Bit returns to the present to explain what became of Peck after she left: He turned to alcohol after years of sobriety, leading to the loss of his job, his marriage, and his driver's license. He went on to die after drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs in his basement. Li'l Bit reflects on why her uncle may have molested her, wondering if someone did it to him when he was a child.
Li'l Bit has one more memory to share: the summer of 1962. An 11-year-old Li'l Bit fights with her mother about going out driving with Uncle Peck. Mother is wary of him, but finally relents, telling Li'l Bit that she holds her responsible for any misdeeds. Li'l Bit sits in the car with Uncle Peck, only she doesn't speak her lines out loud. The Teenage Greek Chorus, acting as young L'il Bit, does so. Peck molests his niece for the first time.
The script then returns to the present. Li'l Bit reflects on how she is ready to move on with her life, and that despite everything she has been through, she can thank her Uncle Peck for one thing: the freedom she feels when she drives. The final scene has Li'l Bit alone in her car, and as she adjusts her rear view mirror, she notices Uncle Peck in the back. After smiling at him, she steps on the gas pedal and drives away, finally leaving Peck in the past as she drives off to a new chapter of her life.
How I Learned to Drive premiered Off-Broadway in a production by the Vineyard Theatre (Douglas Aibel, Artistic Director; Jon Nakagawa, Managing Director) on May 6, 1997 and closed on April 19, 1998 at the Century Center For The Performing Arts. The play was directed by Mark Brokaw, set design was by Narelle Sissons, costume design was by Jess Goldstein, lighting design was by Mark McCullough, and the original sound design was by David van Tieghem. The cast was as follows: The play had been presented by the Vineyard Theatre in February to April 1997, featuring Johanna Day and David Morse.
- Li'l Bit played by Mary-Louise Parker
- Uncle Peck played by David Morse
- Male Greek Chorus played by Michael Showalter
- Female Greek Chorus played by Johanna Day
- Teenage Greek Chorus played by Kerry O'Malley
- Greek chorus leader played by Ethan Atkinsto the Century Theatre in April, 1997. Bruce Davison and Jayne Atkinson took over the lead roles. Molly Ringwald stepped into the role in October 1997. The Male Greek Chorus was played by Christopher Duva.
In 2006 the play was produced by the T. Schreiber Studio and Theater in New York City. This critically acclaimed production was directed by Terry Schreiber and received 10 New York Innovative Theatre (NYIT) Award nominations. Trey Gibbons won the NYIT Award for Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role for his performance in this production.
In 2012 Second Stage Theatre produced the first professional production of the play in New York City since its premiere in 1997. The work was directed by Kate Whoriskey and stars Norbert Leo Butz as Uncle Peck and Elizabeth Reaser as Li'l Bit. The production opened February 13, 2012 and was favorably reviewed by The New York Times, saying "It is a performance that captures Ms. Vogel's remarkable, clear-eyed empathy in portraying the incalculable damage done by damaged people".
In 2012 University of Vermont's Department of Theatre produced the play to be viewed and workshoped with Ms. Vogel. Natalie Battistone and Colby Morgan played the lead roles. The production was directed by Department of Theatre Chair Gregory Ramos.
In 2015, the play received its first professional London revival at Southwark Playhouse, starring Olivia Poulet as Li'l Bit and William Ellis as Peck, directed by Jack Sain, produced by D.E.M. Productions for Fools & Kings Theatre, with set & costume design by Katharine Heath, lighting design by Ziggy Jacobs, and composition and sound design by Nathan Klein.
The play was produced in Spanish by DETUCH Company in various theaters in Santiago de Chile in 2008, with Alejandra Díaz Scharager (Lil' Bit), Víctor Montero (Uncle Peck), Gabriel Urzúa (Male Greek Chorus), Annie Murath (Female Greek Chorus) and Carolina Larenas (Teenage Greek Chorus), directed by Marco Espinoza Quezada. It was also produced at the Teatro auditorio de Miraflores in Lima, Peru, in 2013, with Li'l Bit renamed "Rayita" and played by Leticia Poirier and Uncle Peck renamed "Tío Pico" and played by Marcelo Rivera. Ebelin Ortiz directed.
Awards and nominations
- The Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1998)
- Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Awards (1997)
- Outstanding play
- Outstanding Director (Mark Brokaw)
- Outstanding Actress (Mary-Louise Parker)
- Outstanding Actor (David Morse)
- Drama Desk Awards (1997)
- Outstanding play
- Outstanding Actor in a play
- Outstanding Director of a play
- Obie Award (1996–1997)
- Performance, David Morse
- Performance, Mary-Louise Parker
- Outer Critics Circle Award
- Outstanding Off-Broadway play
- New York Drama Critics Award
- Best play
- How I Learned to Drive lortel.org, accessed October 27, 2016
- How I Learned to Drive vineyardtheatre.org, accessed October 27, 2016
- Ben Brantley (February 14, 2012). "Going Along For the Ride With Uncle". New York Times.
- Theo Bosanquet (12 January 2015). "Olivia Poulet stars in How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse". WhatsOnStage.com. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
- Velarde, Sergio (14 July 2013). "Crítica: CÓMO APRENDÍ A MANEJAR". El Oficio Crítico (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- "Paula Vogel" pulitzer.org, retrieved May 10, 2017
- Lortel listing
- "How I Learned to Drive". ThatTheatreSite. 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
- Paula Vogel (16 April 1998). "A Prize-Winning Playwright". The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (transcript). Interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth. PBS. Retrieved 2008-08-05.