Learning to drive a car is a right-of-passage. Most of us can tell you where we learned and who taught us—sometimes with brilliant nostalgia for the vehicle we were in and with gratitude for the adult who taught us. Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “How I Learned To Drive,” relies heavily on the commonality of the experience and the freedom that comes with mastering this basic life-skill.
In addition to powerful acting, this production boasts innovative set design.
Set in rural Maryland in the 1960s, the plot centers around Lil’ Bit, now a grown woman who shares a series of intimate teenage memories structured around the rules of the road. The opening scene finds a 17-year-old Lil’ Bit in a parked car with Uncle Peck, a middle-aged, unhappily married man. The two have been meeting weekly for years. Uncle Peck has been giving Lil’ Bit driving lessons—and grooming her to be his sexual partner.
Heather Wetherald stars as Lil’ Bit with Brian Donohue in the role of Uncle Peck. Under the direction of Suzanne L. Donahue, both actors are superb. Wetherald gives us a believable survivor of sexual abuse. Emotionally damaged by years of manipulation, she finds strength in forgiveness and liberation in driving. Donahue plays the smooth-talking, complex predator with a touching sensitivity making him impossible to hate. The vulnerability both actors bring to the stage gives them an undeniable chemistry and authenticity.
The other members of Lil’ Bit’s highly dysfunctional family are played by a Greek Chorus (Taylor Scott Hines, Hannah Lunczynski, and Melody Watley). Watley is especially good as Lil Bit’s alcoholic mother who dispenses questionable advice about cocktails and love. Lunczynski delivers an even performance as both the grandmother and Lil’ Bit as a child. Hines shines as the cantankerous grandfather, Lil’ Bit’s potential suitors—and as Uncle Peck’s voiceless first victim.
While the props and costumes have been kept to a minimal, they are not missed. In addition to powerful acting, this production boasts innovative set design. Full-stage projections of scenery behind the players and the booming, overly cheerful voice announcing basic driving instructions help create the ambiance drawing the audience into the story. The masterful creative team of Danielle LeDoux, Erik Braun, Gillian Reese Newhouse, and Mike Russell are to be commended.
Be warned, however. “How I Learned To Drive” is frequently billed as a comedy and often described as “funny.” While an occasional well-timed line might earn a mild chuckle, the overall feel of this production is heavy, so please note the advisory below.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Not recommended for children or sensitive adults who may be triggered by child sexual abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, body image issues, or multi-generational family dysfunction.
“How I Learned To Drive” runs through March 12, 2023 at the College of Southern Maryland, LaPlata Campus, Fine Arts Center, Brad and Linda Gottfried Theater, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata, MD 20646. Showtimes: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 3 pm. For more information and tickets, visit here or call 301-934-7828. Masks are optional.