Go to Homepage   How I Learned to Drive: Driving Down Demons


A play by Paula Vogel, directed by Molly Smith, at the Kreeger Theatre of the Arena Stage, Washington, DC, playing through June 20, 1999 
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive is about pedophilia. But this richly humorous piece also addresses love and families; dreams and clarity; warmth, understanding, and generosity of spirit. I know, we don't normally use the words "funny" and "sexual abuse" in the same sentence. But we also don't normally see plays as deeply nuanced as this. 

The warmth and generosity pour out from the extraordinary main character, L'il Bit. Though she may have been a "victim" once, in adulthood she has driven down her demons and put them in the back seat of her metaphorical car, where she can watch them with a quick glance in the rearview mirror. L'il Bit wants to keep moving forward; she refuses be a hostage to her past. 

That past shows an adolescent girl with no apparent way out -- victimized by those determined to break her spirit. Her loutish family cruelly mocked her dreams of college and a career, while her Uncle Peck, who listened to and encouraged her, also molested her. L'il Bit needed and even loved Peck, as repellent as that notion seems at first. But Vogel imbues her characters with layers of complexity. She makes Peck patient, funny, troubled, warm, intelligent, weak, open-minded, and obsessed. Indeed, Peck and L'il Bit differ mostly in that she finds the strength to face down her demons, while Peck's dominate him. 

L'il Bit remains cagey about her life after Peck. We see her at several adolescent ages, then as a 34-year-old narrator who tells us almost nothing about herself beyond the first semester of college.  

Deirdre Lovejoy convincingly infused L'il Bit with the poignancy and strength that let us see how this confused child could become the confident narrator before us. Kurt Rhoads as Peck crafted a masterly portrayal of a fatally troubled man, someone we'd probably like if not for his "problems." The always-excellent Sarah Marshall played numerous small roles as the Female Greek Chorus, giving us delicious snarkiness, a mother's caring and everything in between. Rubber-faced Rhea Seehorn, delightful as the Teenage Greek Chorus, demonstrated versatility by also playing L'il Bit's granny. Finally, Timmy Ray James, the Male Greek Chorus, portrayed snooty waiters, a high school nerd, and other minor characters extremely well. 

The often dark How I Learned to Drive does not send you home feeling all warm and fuzzy. But beyond the horror of the sexual abuse, you will remember the resilience and tenderness of Vogel's main character. This excellent play should be around for years to come. Go see it! 

Elizabeth Sheley

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