How I Learned
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 letmedraw 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.
By Steven Leigh
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.