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“How I Learned to Drive”, a play by Paula Vogel, the Eugene O’Neill adjunct Professor of Playwriting and former Chair of the Playwriting Department at the Yale School of Drama, is onstage at UMD’s Dudley Experimental Theatre Tuesday March 26 through Saturday March 30 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday March 31 at 2 pm. It’s a story of a girl’s coming of age, all the while exposed to a lecherous uncle. This seemingly off-putting 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is nuanced by Vogel’s choice of zany characters and mitigated by her ability to locate a heart.....even in the deeply flawed.
We’re set up with a comic black and white film that admonishes us to leave our cell phones out of it while never even mentioning them. Then to 1960’s rural Maryland before it has become a D.C. suburb; where, 100 years prior, Li’l Bit’s family viewed the civil war from their porch.
I met my husband’s family in Piraeus. As we walked down the streets visiting friends, the Greeks’ ribald repartee’ alluded to body parts and street professions. It shocked me, but in the long run, prepared me for this play where Li’l Bit’s family dole out nicknames that, too, reflect body parts, including ‘Uncle Peck’.
This is a story that hinges on driving cars, and Vogel cues us to various chapters in Li’l Bit’s life by changing gears: forward from second to third, idling in neutral, back into reverse. We jump around her life to get a better picture, all the while Uncle Peck is teaching her to drive a stick.
The play is riddled with music: an aria; 60’s R&B; a chorus of three, do-wopping across the stage; allusions to the Flying Dutchman and Carmina Burana: interludes of comedy and music mixed into a decade of child enticement.
Do Mom’s drinking guidelines: straight up or on the rocks, then go to the bathroom and upchuck- prepare Li’l Bit for her first drink, proffered by Guess Who?
And yet, a vignette of Uncle Peck teaching a little boy to fish touches us. They’re trolling for pompano in a South Carolina swamp, and sure enough, the child hooks one. Peck can taste it sauteed with pecans and butter. But when the child cries about killing the fish, Peck assures him it’s OK to feel that way. They throw the fish back. End of tale.
Li’l Bit completely divorces her experiences driving with Peck from the sex ed she learns from the women in the family. In fact, the day Peck sets her on his lap for a ravishing first driving lesson down the backroads of South Carolina, is the last day our girl lives in her body.
UMD Senior, Kate Zehr, is the apprehensive, gullable, caring niece. Junior, Joshua Stenvick, is splendid as her uncle. Amanda Sjodahl, Derik Iverson, and Stephanie Hammon play numerous roles from quirky family members to song and dance troops. I’ve seen all these young actors before. They just keep getting better.