A Teenager, an Uncle, a Car
How I Learned to Drive explores dark, complex subject, with humor
Few rites of passage are more highly anticipated than sex and driving, and playwright Paula Vogel incorporates both in her darkly comic Pulitzer winner How I Learned to Drive, the current production of the College of Fine Arts.
Although the drama deals with the unsettling subject of pedophilia, it is funny as well as disturbing, says director Tara Matkowsky (CFA’10). She describes it as “uncomfortable, troubling, and also wrought with humor.”
Told from the viewpoint of Li’l Bit, a Southern girl from an insular lower-class family, the play recounts the dysfunctional relationship between her and Peck, her uncle by marriage. The setting is suburban Maryland “before the malls took over,” and like resurfacing memories, the action shifts back and forth between the 1960s and ’70s as Li’l Bit relates her seven-year affair with Uncle Peck.
It began when she was 11, a day she describes as “the last day I lived in my body.” In a scene that will make audiences squirm, Peck takes her for her first driving lesson, both actually and metaphorically.
“Many people mistakenly interpret How I Learned to Drive as being about the great harm we receive from the people who love us,” Matkowsky says. “But it’s the opposite: How I Learned to Drive is about the great love we receive from the people who harm us.”
Among crass family members and cruel classmates who tease Li’l Bit about her prematurely developing body, Uncle Peck is her only respite. He alone encourages her to attend college; he is there for her always, sympathetic and understanding in a way her father never was. And he asks for only one thing in return: her innocence.
But the story is far more complex than one of predator and victim, says Alicia Hunt (CFA’08,’12), who portrays the play’s heroine both in flashbacks and the present. “Li’l Bit loves her uncle, and her uncle loves her,” she says. “There’s a real relationship between them, and therein lies the tragedy.”
The premise may be bleak, according to Hunt, but this is a story of triumph and survival. In robbing Li’l Bit of her childhood, she says, Peck also bestows a gift: he teaches her how to drive.
“Only when Li’l Bit is behind the wheel, with the road stretched before her, is she free,” she says. “When she’s in the driver’s seat, she’s in control.”
How I Learned to Drive, a production of the Boston Center for American Performance, BU’s professional performing arts initiative, runs Thursdays to Sundays through Saturday, February 27, at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for seniors and members of the BU community (ID required) and may be purchased online, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Performance times vary; check the calendar. Follow the College of Fine Arts on Twitter at @CFAtweets.5 Comments