KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 18, 1998
In a seriously dysfunctional family where everyone is nicknamed for the size of their genitalia, Li’l Bit is ill-fated from birth. When she was 11 and fully developed, and no one understood her, her Uncle Peck was always there — to lay a sympathetic hand on her shoulder — or on her burgeoning breasts.
The 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” is, as playwright Paula Vogel puts it, the Lolita story told from Lolita’s point of view. It’s not just a simple, stomach-churning tale of pedophilia, about some sleazy, demented sociopath lurking lasciviously in a darkened doorway. This is the more common story: a trusted friend or relative, and a deep, difficult, complex relationship.
Either way, it’s an incendiary subject, but Vogel laces her play with humor, and frames it in the context of street signs, rules of the road, and lessons in handling all kinds of traffic, to avoid the worst kind of moving violations. Behind the wheel of his ‘62 Buick, Uncle Peck teaches Li’l Bit how to drive — and a li’l bit more.
Structurally, the piece is choppy and non-linear. Li’l Bit is telling us her story, jumping back and forth in time, from age 11 to 39, recalling the seminal events that marked her life — and marked her for life. The humor takes the chill off, but this is still one cold and discomfiting tale.
It’s about cars and sexuality, power and lust, loneliness and desperate mutual need. Sexism, incest and seduction. But it’s no black and white newsprint report of victimization. In fact, the world Vogel creates is garishly colored at times. To temper the intensity, she brings in a burlesque of cartoonish characters, played by a so-called Greek chorus of three. At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, these hypersexualized caricatures are overly coarse and campy, and sometimes frankly undifferentiated.
Maybe the playwright’s intention was to mollify the audience, soften the hard edges, or even reflect a distorted teenage perspective. But, like the scene-introducing pronouncements from an old Driver’s Handbook (“You and the Reverse Gear,” “Idling in Neutral,” etc.) they bring a grating sameness and a discordant tone to the piece. Under Sam Woodhouse’s direction, these characters are not clearly conceived or realized, though Linda Libby is both versatile and poignant as Li’l Bit’s advice-spewing, besotted mother and the girl’s long-suffering Aunt Mary, who blames and resents her niece for “borrowing” her Uncle Peck.
Despite the silly, sometimes frenetic goings-on at the periphery, the main event is center-stage, in the eerily tender, twisted love story between a young girl and a man 27 years her senior. Like their relationship, the play is seductive, humorous, disturbing and strangely empathic. It’s a disquieting coming-of-age narrative, a tale of suppression and survival, set here in a surreal landscape that looks unappealingly like twenty miles of bad road. The mixed messages and metaphors don’t always work. Neither do the performances. But there are aching, chilling moments of truth — like the one brief bedroom scene when Li’l Bit turns 18, and in Uncle Peck’s frighteningly insidious fishing lesson, directed to a very young, unseen male cousin.
As Li’l Bit, Jennifer Parsons could show a bit more nuance, more transition from wide-eyed pre-pubescent to flirtatious adolescent to older-but-wiser adult. But in the character’s moments of greatest anguish and confusion, she is heart-breaking. Lawrence Hecht’s Uncle Peck is calm, reassuring and suitably avuncular. He shows his pain better than his passion, but he makes Peck a sympathetic, three-dimensional man, neither hateful nor pathetic, and maybe even a tad tragic at the end.
In the beautifully theatrical final image, both tender and troubling, we see that Li’l Bit, though scarred and haunted, still believes in family and forgiveness, and has found the strength to drive on.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.