Paula Vogel has guts. Writing about incest, child abuse, and a girl's sexual awakening without being melodramatic or making an audience cringe is tough. Writing a play about the seven-year relationship between a teenage girl and her uncle without turning the situation into a simplistic battle of good versus evil is downright dangerous. Yet Vogel's How I Learned to Drive does just that with dignity--and even a few laughs.
Through a series of flashbacks narrated by the now-middle-aged protagonist, the play tells the story of Little Bit's coming of age in suburban Maryland. As Vogel put it during an interview for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer soon after her play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, it is "Lolita from Lolita's point of view."
The story tells how, in the midst of a dysfunctional family in which Grandpa tells coarse jokes and Grandma warns her away from men with frightening stories, the young girl finds solace and much more in the company of her Uncle Peck. He offers to give her driving lessons and is attentive and courteous, a welcome contrast to Little Bit's other family members and the boys that pursue her in her early adolescence. Peck is a real and almost sympathetic character who appears actually to love his niece, and that makes what he does even more terrifying.
Non-chronological, cross-cutting scenes allow the playwright to explore not only the attitudes of the other family members, but more significantly, the child's own choices. The deliberate blurring of expected roles allows the teenager's own complicity to be brought into question, and that is one of the play's most original qualities. In today's moral climate, such ambivalence in the face of topics as controversial as the ones Vogel broaches requires courage.
In order to make the delivery easier, Vogel injects some comedy into the play, mostly centered around Little Bit's offbeat family. This is probably one of the few plays about incest and child abuse that allows the audience a few laughs.
Terry Beaver, who will play Uncle Peck in Dallas Theater Center's production of How I Learned to Drive, was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in The Last Night of Ballyhoo on Broadway. Terri Lamm, cast as Little Bit, has performed in both New York and Texas.
In order to put the play into a broader cultural context, DTC will host its Deloitte & Touche In Perspective series, featuring a talk by a scholar, on November 1 following the matinee.
How I Learned to Drive runs from October 21 to November 15 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16-$49. For more information, call (214) 522-8499.