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How I Learned to Drive -09/30/1999

By Paula Vogel. Cast: Alyssa Robbins, Thomas Reed, Andy Gershenzon, Crystal A. Dickinson, Heather Bray. Director: Ina Marlowe. Scenic Designer: Nicole Seguin. Costume Designer: Rebecca Woods. Lighting Designer: Chad Carpenter. Sound Designer: Sarah Wonak. Properties Designer: Caryn Thackeray.

University of Illinois Department of Theater through October 10. Studio Theater, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Box Office: 333-6280.


Paula Vogel is not an easy playwright.

Recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “How I Learned to Drive,” Vogel pulls no punches. She hides sharp weapons inside her home-grown humor, showing how an every-day, benign situation like learning to drive can camouflage the devastating abuse of incest.

“How I Learned to Drive” earned just about every award New York has to offer, including the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics Circle and Obie awards for best play.
Its plot and structure create a quirky, out-of-order tale of a young girl called Li’l Bit caught in a crude, coarse family that just doesn’t fit her. (To demonstrate their lack of charm, the script tells us that they have a family habit of nicknaming relatives based on characteristics of their genitalia.) Among this nest of toads and warts, the one person who seems to listen to Li’l Bit, to understand her, is her Uncle Peck.

But Uncle Peck is a predator. He seduces and coerces her into terrible, sordid, unforgivable situations, all in the name of love, hunting her as carefully as he hooks and reels in a fish on a riverbank.
In an interview, Vogel says the play is not a warning that the people who love us can also do great harm. Instead, she says, “How I Learned to Drive” shows that “we can receive great love from the people who harm us.”

It’s a double-edged sword -- by teaching Li’l Bit to rely on her wits, Uncle Peck provides the means for her to escape her family’s limitations, and yet he has wounded her forever. Can she ever really drive fast enough to escape him?

This is not a play for all audiences, as dark and disturbing as it is. Still, under the direction of, Ina Marlowe, a distinguished guest director (producing artistic director from Chicago’s Organic Theater Company), “How I Learned to Drive” projects power and truth in Krannert’s Studio Theater.
Lead players Alyssa Robbins and Thomas Reed take on Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck with directness and honesty, and they are both compelling.

Nicole Seguin’s utilitarian scenic design offers basic boxes to reconfigure as the scenes change, and that works well enough, while Chad Carpenter’s lighting design adds texture and style.

There are some limitations in the in-the-round staging, however. It’s a bit static, which means you end up looking at the backs of heads a little too often. And the playwright’s suggested slide show loses effectiveness projected onto small banners held aloft by the Greek Chorus of three (Andy Gershenzon, Crystal A. Dickinson and Heather Bray). The result is less of a visual impact than I think Vogel intended.

I was also perplexed by Marlowe’s concept for the Greek Chorus, outfitted in workmen’s clothes as they provide segues on the driving theme and fill minor roles. Some characters -- Dickinson’s Southern belle offering instructions on how to drink like a lady, and Gershenzon’s duo of gawky teenage boys -- work very well, while others would’ve benefitted from more of a different look or character detail.

Still, this is a worthy effort -- offensive to some audiences, to be sure, simply because of the subject matter -- but in the end, insightful, disturbing and sharp.

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