How I Learned to Drive
by Paula Vogel

How I Learned to Drive is not told with a straightforward plot but is instead an uneven mixture of flashbacks, narration, monologues, and the kind of impersonal voice-over that accompanies driver education films. It starts with Li'l Bit as an adult, addressing the audience, as if she is giving a lecture about how to drive. She describes Maryland during her youth in the 1960s, and then the setting dissolves into 1969, with her uncle Peck sitting in a Buick Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Li'l Bit climbs in next to him. He takes the role of a child, telling her that he has been good, and she acts like an authority figure to him. When he says that he has not had a drink all week, she allows him the ‘‘small reward'' of undoing her bra. When they leave their parking spot, Li'l Bit drives.

At a family dinner in 1969, the conversation focusing on the size of her breasts is embarrassing to Li'l Bit. Her grandfather makes one wise crack after another about her breasts being big, until Li'l Bit flees the room for some privacy. Peck is the one who follows her and consoles her. Feeling better, Li'l Bit arranges to meet him later that night.

Grown-up Li'l Bit, as narrator, explains to the audience that she was kicked out of school in 1970 for constant drinking and then took a job in a factory and spent her nights drinking and racing through the streets in her car.

The scene fades to Li'l Bit and Peck at an inn far from home along the Maryland shore in 1968 (a year before the family dinner portrayed earlier). The occasion is a celebration of Li'l Bit having received her driver's license. Peck, who has had a drinking problem, does not order a drink, but he tells Li'l Bit to have one, even though she is only sixteen. Li'l Bit's mother shows up at the side of the stage to give the audience ‘‘A mother's guide to social drinking,’’ which includes such advice as to eat much bread and butter and never to order sugary "ladies'' drinks. Li' l bit orders a martini and quickly becomes drunk. When they leave, she is hardly able to walk, and she expects Peck to try to take advantage of her. She objects to their relationship, and he tells her not to worry, that he is a man and will not do anything sexual until she wants to.

There is a brief scene of Uncle Peck teaching Li'l Bit's cousin Bobby to fish, just as he has taught her to drive. At the end of the scene, Peck offers to show Bobby ‘‘a secret place’’ in the trees, where they can be alone and drink a beer: "this is something special just between you and me,'' Peck says, reminiscent of his friendly seduction of Li'l Bit.

The next scene has Li' lBit, her mother, and her grandmother seated in a kitchen and is titled, "On Men, Sex and Women: Part I.’’ The grandmother explains that her husband always wanted to have sex several times every day. As the grandmother and mother talk about what crude beasts men are, they become increasingly aroused.

The grown-up Li'l Bit narrates the story of a bus trip in 1979, when she was in her twenties. A high school boy sat down by her and struck up a conversation. She made herself attractive enough that he followed her when the bus stopped and continued his conversation until she invited him up to her room, where they had sex.

‘‘On Men, Sex, and Women: Part II’’ has fifteen-year-old Li'l Bit asking her mother and grandmother about sex. Her mother tells her that it hurts just a little, at first. Her grandmother tells her that the first time a girl has sex is very painful and bloody. The mother is resentful about the misinformation that her own mother gave her, feeling that it is responsible for her having gotten pregnant young with Li'l Bit, leading to her awful marriage to Li'l Bit's father.

Then Uncle Peck is giving Li'l Bit a driving lesson. She is light-hearted and joking around. Instead of indulging her, as he has before, Peck is strict, demanding that she take driving seriously. Li'l Bit makes a brief joke about the need to "defend'' herself, implying that Peck has already made advances toward her, but he promises that he would never try anything while she is driving.

Li'l Bit recalls a time when she was in the ninth grade and a boy embarrassed her by pretending to have an allergic reaction to foam rubber, grabbing her breast. In the locker room after gym class, female classmates took note of the fact that her breasts were indeed real and not foam rubber. At a sock hop, a shy boy approached Li'l Bit several times to dance. A radar-like beeping, supposedly emerging from her breasts, indicated the way that boys were drawn to them, making Li'l Bit wary of their attention.

In 1965, in his basement, Peck has a camera, and he has Li'lB it pose for pictures in his "studio." He tells her that she is beautiful and urges her to respond to the music with her body. She loses herself in the moment but is shaken back into reality when he mentions that these pictures will help her compile a good portfolio in five years, when she is eighteen and can pose for Playboy. Li'l Bit is horrified at the realization that her pictures could be seen by someone else.

Christmas 1964, when Li'l Bit is thirteen, she has a conversation with her uncle about why he drinks so much, and he tells her how much it helps him to talk to her. She suggests that they could meet once a week to talk, that they would keep their meetings a secret from her mother and his wife. The meetings have to be in public, she says: ‘‘You've got to letme—draw the line.'' She is aware from the start of the possibility of a sexual relationship.

In 1969, while Li'l Bit is away at college, Peck sends her a series of gifts, with notes that include a count of the days until she is eighteen, the age of legal consent. When he shows up on her eighteenth birthday, Li'l Bit explains that his notes have been so crazy they frighten her. She does drink the champagne that he has brought: as explained in an earlier scene, her first year at college was spent drinking constantly. She tells him that they should not "see" each other any more, and his offer to divorce Aunt Mary and marry her just makes her more frightened of him and more resolute that their relationship should end. He goes directly to a bar and starts drinking again. "It took my uncle seven years to drink himself to death,’’ the adult Li'l Bit tells the audience.

The play continues with ‘‘On Men, Sex, and Women: Part III,’’ which takes place in 1962. Peck wants to take her to the beach, and her mother refuses: ‘‘I am not letting an 11-year-old girl spend seven hours alone in the car with a man.... I don't like the way your uncle looks at you.’’ In the end, though, she gives in. It is on this car ride that Peck asks Li'l Bit for the first time if she would like to learn to drive, and he lifts her up on his lap behind the wheel.

The last scene is the adult Li'l Bit preparing to go driving. She climbs into the car and makes the necessary adjustments. When she adjusts the rearview mirror, she sees the image of Uncle Peck in the back seat, before she takes off.

 


Body Politics
pedophilia onstage

By Steven Leigh Morris
LA Weekly, Wednesday, March 10, 1999


SET MOSTLY THROUGH THE '60S IN MARYLAND (though there's an oddly '50s tone to both Jess Goldstein's costumes and David Van Tieghem's sound design), How I Learned To Drive has almost nothing to do with economics. Rather, through a series of sketches that span a decade or so and are deliberately out of sequence, it chronicles a love story between Li'l Bit and her surrogate father, Uncle Peck, who, yes, teaches her literally and metaphorically how to drive.

They have a compact. She will show up to meet with him if he refrains from drinking. And although he's true to his word, this is the same man who takes clandestine photos of her in his basement, undoing just the top button of her sweater after she insists on keeping all her clothes on. When he fesses up that he intends holding on to the photos for future submission to Playboy, she recoils, refusing even to look into the camera. "I love you," he blurts out at a strategic moment. She spins on her chair and glares at him. Seconds later, the sweater falls away. With a remarkable economy of language, there emerges a stage picture of exploitation and vulnerability, of love and neediness on the part of both man and child. It is both romantic and depraved.

Were this a network-TV drama, the moral cards would be obviously stacked on one side or another: Uncle Peck would be a generic creep, Li'l Bit a mere victim -- or perhaps a wrongful accuser who destroys his innocent life. In Brokaw's staging, however, Li'l Bit is a study in wilting resolve. She says no, means yes, and may be too young to know the difference. It takes her 18 years to finally make up her mind, and the cost to Peck is devastating.

Kerwin's dynamism and charm temper Peck's cagey abuse of the girl. Ringwald's performance is more perfunctory. She's stiff, ill-equipped to handle the sweeping style of direct audience address demanded of her, although her awkwardness serves her well in the more intimate, cinematic scenes.

Ringwald and Kerwin are the only actors in the five-member ensemble who don't double as other characters. Li'l Bit's mother (Johanna Day), grandmother (Rona Benson) and grandfather (Justin Hagan) also serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the action that plays out on set designer Narelle Sissons' stage, bare save for a few rudimentary items of portable furniture -- all framed by a proscenium of road-map motifs.

The play's moral neutrality toward its incendiary theme is perhaps its greatest appeal, and has led people to mistake it for a great play. Rather, it's a pretty good play with a few great scenes. But it's hampered by just as many generic ones -- Li'l Bit in the school shower, for instance, cringing as her classmates gape at her prodigious breasts. The writing in many of her "dates" on the road with Uncle Peck is also rather too familiar and obvious. Were these scenes not sparked by flickers of incest and pedophilia, they wouldn't even sustain our interest. Which makes How I Learned To Drive rather like Lolita for the tourist class, like surfing over a torrent rather than plunging into it. Nabokov it ain't.