More than 25 years ago, after its off-Broadway premiere, How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer Prize (1998). Since then, this disturbing play has been produced all over the country, finally making it to Broadway last year with its original cast. It’s now at the Sherry Theater in North Hollywood, presented by Collaborative Artists Ensemble.
Playwright Paula Vogel has been lauded for presenting a detailed portrait of the relationship between a teenage girl, known only as Lil Bit (Meg Wallace) and her Uncle Peck (Lane Wray). Inspired by Lolita, Vogel set out to present two fully formed characters, one of whom is in love not only with an underage girl, but his own niece.
Vogel’s play remains shocking in its depiction of Uncle Peck’s relentless seduction of Lil Bit. Its off-kilter structure intensifies the discomfort. A Male, Female and Teenage Greek Chorus play other family members. In this production, the Greek Chorus is double-cast; the performance I saw had Jael Saran, Kathy Bell Denton and Sophia Gonzales, respectively, in those roles. All characters except Uncle Peck are playing against their actual ages.
The family is unpleasant and casually cruel, the ideal environment for a member craving an incestual and pedophiliac relationship.
As the depraved uncle, Wray is riveting, both seductive and repulsive. Wallace, in contrast, must overcome the challenge of playing a child who puts up a wall to protect herself from her uncle’s advances. She seems frozen with fear, even when she acquiesces to some of her uncle’s milder requests; she senses they are only stepping stones to the abyss.
“Someone will get hurt,” she says. He replies, “Have I forced you to do anything?”
The memory play takes place in Maryland between 1963 and 1970. Lil Bit narrates, identifying the year as she moves forward and backward in time. A window at the rear of the stage lights up occasionally as a Driving Instructor (John Ogden) appears to offer rules of the road, such as an admonition to check under the car for small children before you drive.
How I Learned to Drive, presented by Collaborative Artists Ensemble, is playing at the Sherry Theater, through March 19 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 7:00pm. The theater is located at 11052 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. Tickets are $30 and are available here.