How I Learned to Drive
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 9, 2006
Terry Schreiber's revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, now playing at the Studio bearing his name, is compelling, important theatre. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, is about a young woman and her complex relationship with her uncle—a man who, we come to understand, has been sexually abusing her since she was 11 years old.
When the play came out in the midst of the Clinton administration, its civilized effort to make both pedophile and victim understandable and accessible to audiences was in step with the times. Today, with tolerance strained rather systemically in this country, Vogel's incisive sensitivity feels at odds with societal attitudes; in addition, thanks in part to works like this one that helped formerly abused children deal openly with pasts generally left repressed, it's hard not to look at someone like Uncle Peck and not automatically judge him a monster. It's a tribute to Vogel's smart writing and Schreiber's finely-tuned direction that this production retains the uneasy ambiguity the playwright intends.
At the center of Schreiber's staging is Jess Draper's Uncle Peck, a multi-dimensional character of enormous depth who is at once a caring family man, a sorely troubled loner, and a slick, well-practiced predator. Draper takes us into the head of this man who genuinely loves his niece but at the same time can't figure out how to stop his damaging obsession with her.
Erika Shaffer plays the girl, known only as "L'il Bit," and she deftly navigates the journey backward from adult narrator (whose eye is never off the rear view mirror, as it were, looking sharply back at her life) to the progressively younger adult, then teenager, then little girl who became her uncle's confidante and plaything. Shaffer mines the complexity of her character as well, recalling Lolita in places where her attachment to her uncle stretches dangerously from playfulness to flirtatiousness.
A chorus of three—well-played by Trey Gibbons, Samantha J. Phillips, and Kira Sternbach—hovers in the background, observing and occasionally abetting the tale. Schreiber uses them explicitly as a Greek chorus (a point emphasized by Hal Tine's spare, classical setting) and so they're almost always present and entirely impotent. They stand in for us as complicit in the tragic thing that's playing out in front of us: from Peck's wife to the waiter in a fancy restaurant who lets Peck buy his underage niece liquor, the story is filled with people wearing blinders who allow the unthinkable to happen.
Vogel's play trades not in retribution but understanding; Schreiber frames this within an exploration not of tolerance but of a society and culture too prepared to tolerate and therefore look away. There's the finest of lines between caring enough to understand something and caring enough to try to change something: Schreiber, in this remarkable presentation, pushes us to examine where that line is, and on which side of it we have placed ourselves.