Drama Review – How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

During an interview playwright Paula Vogel expressed her debt to Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita inspired her to craft a similar story written from the Lolita character’s point-of-view. The superb play How I Learned to Drive resulted.

I found the play’s structure outstanding. The author instructed that during the show a voice over recite messages as though coming from a driver’s education film. These included expressions such as, “Safety first – You and Driver education” (Page 9), “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear” (Page 16) and “You and the Reverse Gear.” (Page 45) The playwright cleverly inserted these messages into places where they corresponded with the scene. As disturbing as I found the one on “Implied Consent” (Page 44), the following expressed the most troubling message.

Before You Drive.

Always check under your car for obstructions – broken bottles, fallen tree branches, and the bodies of small children. Each year hundreds of children are crushed beneath the wheels of unwary drivers in their own driveways. Children depend on you to watch them. (Page 32)

No play would be presentable without the addition of quirky and memorable characters. How I Learned to Drive didn’t lack any. This family had a very unique tradition. As the protagonist, Li’l Bit explained.

In most families relatives get names like “Junior” or “Brother” or “Bubba.” In my family if we call someone “Big Papa,” it’s not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. (Page 12)

The playwright provided great insights into Uncle Peck’s character through his behavior. As he taught Li’l Bit to drive, the occasions became a metaphor for their illicit relationship. He took Li’l Bit out for oysters and cocktails after she passed the driving test. (Page 17) When she was 13, he had her do a sensual photo shoot for him. He told her:

Peck:…You’re doing great work. If we keep this up, in five years we’ll have a really professional portfolio. (Li’l Bit stops.)

Li’l Bit: What do you mean in five years?

Peck: You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen. — (Peck continues to shoot; he knows he’s made a mistake.)

Li’l Bit: –Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?

Peck: Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best. (Page 43)

It seemed very eerie to me that an adolescent girl would still address a man as “uncle” when he talked about sending erotic photos of her to a men’s magazine. I credit the playwright for crafting this scene so well. It gave readers an insight into Uncle Peck’s true nature.

But this was just warm-up depravity for Uncle Peck. He had more despicable conduct to commit. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Li’l Bit expressed her disgust in the following exchange.

Peck: — They were gifts! I just wanted to give you some little perks for your first semester—

Li’l Bit: –Well what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go—only two more weeks.—And then just numbers –69—68—67—like some serial killer!

Peck: Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick-up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

Li’l Bit: My eighteenth birthday. I’m not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

Peck: So?

Lil’ Bit: So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Page 49)

The playwright added another distressing bit of realism to this story, too. In the end, Aunt Mary blamed the teenaged Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. It’s always terrible when a victim gets blamed for the crime committed against her. It’s even more awful when that sufferer is a child.

While the nature of the story made for a somber read, the playwright managed to work in some fantastic humor. My favorite occurred when Li’l Bit shared a “Mary Jane joke” with another character.

“Little Mary Jane was walking through the woods, when all of a sudden this man who was hiding behind a tree jumps out, rips open Mary Jane’s blouse, and plunges his hands on her breasts. And little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes.” (Page 37)

For Ms. Vogel’s extraordinary work, How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. To those not familiar with it, I’d encourage these people to get in their cars. Adjust the seat. Fasten the seatbelt. Then check the right side mirror – check the left side. Finally, adjust the rearview mirror. And then—floor it to your nearest theater or bookstore.

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