by Elliot Wasserman
I have known of Paula Vogel’s play, How I learned to Drive, ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Over the years I have seen the play appear on the seasons of a number of theatres. Yet I never read the play, nor did I go to see it. And why? Because I considered the theme of child abuse to be more disturbing than anything I wanted to treat as a director. Over the years, colleagues regularly recommended the play to me and I always agreed to have a look at it, yet I never did. Finally, challenged to do so at last, I sat down with Vogel’s script and found myself fascinated by its perspective. How I Learned to Drive is not the play I expected about evil attempting to subvert all that is good. It does not so simplify its subject. Instead, this play is about the relational dynamic in which aberrant behavior can flourish.
The play you are about to see presents only two of its characters directly: Li’l Bit, a woman who recalls the conditions of her teenage years two decades after the fact, and Peck, the uncle who made her the object of his fantasies during those years. All other characters are presented by a Greek chorus of three actors. Their interchangeable nature underscores the tragic natures of the two who stand in high relief. It is their relationship, their primary relationship, which Paula Vogel sets before us. The disturbing truth of that relationship is the condition of its genesis: wherein a victim of pedophilia does not understand her own victimization while the pedophile himself believes that he can justify his own standard of morality. He believes, in essence, that the world simply does not—cannot—understand him. So he cultivates the understanding of one exceptional young girl.
The part the family as a whole plays in this drama is also a key to its thematic value, for Li’l Bit’s family hardly “sees” her, hardly understands her struggles; thus, they abandon her to Peck’s predation through their own lack of empathy and their ignorance. Under such conditions, what is most wrong in a child’s life can appear to be the only thing that is right. Such is the story of Li’l Bit. This is how she learns to drive.