Sexual abuse and the way women are often negatively sexualized once they experience the onset of puberty is a subject that has been at the forefront in recent news headlines; making the overarching metaphor in How I Learned to Drive, a play written by Paula Vogel and directed by Justin Sines, perfectly timed to bring about awareness and discussion about the issue.
On a simple set featuring large archway made out of wire fencing with various street signs attached to the top and sides, the audience is introduced to one of the main characters, Li’l Bit, played by Fiona Montgomery, who is growing up in the mid-60s and early 70s. Also present in the performance space is an unmoving, upholstered seat with a back that serves as the seat of a car for the majority of the play, and two identical, backless seats located in close proximity on either side.
Learning how to drive portrayed as a metaphor for learning about sexual boundaries and sexual abuse is clear early on in the performance, making the length of the 90 minute piece perhaps a bit unnecessary.
The inappropriate sexual nature of the relationship among family members that has been passed down through generations is made apparent immediately, as Li’l Bit explains that everyone in her family has a nickname that relates to a part of a person’s genitalia. Her grandfather’s nickname is, “Big Pappa,” while her uncle’s name is, “Uncle Peck;” both obvious metaphors.
The audience watches as the play’s timeline jumps back and forth, guided by driving instructor, voiced by Colleen Garrison, who utilizes driving instructions for a manual car to indicate a shift forward or backward in time. The nonlinear timeline provides a glimpse into the inappropriate nature of Li’l Bit’s relationship with uncle Peck and the sexual abuse he inflicts on her from an early age, how it affects her throughout her teenage years and the lasting affect it has on her as a young adult.
While driving directions allow the audience to perceive the timeline has changed and provides further depth to the main metaphor, if the secondary characters had not often announced that there was a change in the year, I would not have necessarily picked up on the fact that Li’l Bit’s age shifts during the performance. Li’l Bit is often distressed, as she should be considering the circumstances, and Montgomery does a good job of making this apparent to the audience through her expressions. However, Montgomery unfortunately makes almost no alterations in Li’l Bit’s mannerisms or tone of speech to indicate that the character’s age has changed, rendering the performance flat.
Uncle Peck, played by Michael Makar, is definitely the antagonist in the play, and the fact that his character does not come across as obviously creepy or perverse provides further comment on the relationship between victims of sexual abuse and those abusing them. Often times, the people that prey on others fly under the radar and come across as unassuming and harmless. Uncle Peck grooms Li’l Bit her entire life, skews sexual boundaries, makes her believe that what he is doing is not wrong and is able to accomplish this under the guise of a caring and loving family member.
While this point is well taken by the way that the character is portrayed in the performance, at the close of the play I found myself wishing that Makar had made me more uneasy and uncomfortable as the plot progressed. The way that Makar depicts the character of uncle Peck made him seem one dimensional and stiff. Uncle Peck is supposed to be leading two different lives, one in which he is a loving and devoted husband, and one in which he is a sexual predator. Had Makar made uncle Peck come across as a more sly and sneaky, I think the character would seemed more dynamic and realistic.
The play ends with Li’l Bit preparing to go for a drive by herself, however, although she does this on her own, she follows the driving instructions taught by her uncle Peck. As she adjusts the rearview mirror, Makar sits in the back seat indicating to the audience the lifelong affect sexual abuse has, and will have, on Li’l Bit’s life, and the cyclical nature of this behavior.
Special thanks to Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. How I Learned to Drive runs through November 13 at Duquesne Genesius Theater. For tickets and more information, visit duqredmasquers.com.
Photos courtesy of Dale Hess.