Arizona Repertory Theatre begins the fall season with the award-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” directed by Brent Gibbs.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play in 1998, playwright Paula Vogel poses adult-themed questions in a lyrical fashion that is sometimes funny, shocking and at times shady.
Set in the 1960s in rural Maryland, the story of life, family and love is told through Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck’s unhealthy relationship — which at one time was innocent but, as we learn, grows to be codependent and dark.
The story, with Li’l Bit played by sophomore Brenna Welsh, jumps back and forth in time from when the main character is 11 years old, sitting around the kitchen with her family, to when she is 18 and in college.
In the opening scene, Li’l Bit is learning to drive with the help of her Uncle Peck, played by senior Sean Meshew. A lovable guy, he plays the role of everyone’s amiable uncle, except when the scene quickly shifts to him touching and groping her breasts, leaving the audience in shock and a bad taste in your mouth.
There is a lot of ambiguity within this play and one cannot label it only as being about “pedophilia.” The audience is left feeling a whole spectrum of emotions. Viewers are tossed and turned between feeling comforted by family dynamics and yet upset by the pervertedness.
Li’l Bit introduces her family dynamics with Grandma, Grandpa, mother and aunt, played by members of the Greek Chorus, Owen Virgin, Kate Nienhauser and Kathleen Cannon. It’s a humdrum life that she wants to escape from the very beginning, which she does by driving. Li’l Bit is thrown into an adult world where she learns to grow up and to discern between black and white, right and wrong, all while learning to drive.
“When you are driving, your life is in your own two hands,” Uncle Peck says during a lesson.
At no point does Li’l Bit feel unloved. Whether family love or romantic love, it’s the type of love, whether appropriate or not, that is troubling to her through her adolescent and teenage years until she has to make a tough decision when finally reaching an adult age.
Uncle Peck, though creepy and obscene at times, never truly loses reliability in the audience’s mind because he is the confidant for Li’l Bit, the educator of life and skills, such as driving and dishing.
Yet, he is manipulative with his love toward Li’l Bit, using it as a tool to get her to smile for photographs. He recounts the time she was first born when he held her as a baby, in order to appear innocent and to fool her into bed with him.
Vogel takes the aspect of driving as a representation for life, emphasizing the uphills, downhills, stops and possible crashes.
There is a sense of vulnerability with uncomfortable themes because, although a fictionalized piece, the subject of pedophilia is real. These societal issues are told through an obscure love story that emanates a variety of reactions.
“Though it was intense and had serious content, there was enough comic relief that it was still enjoyable to watch,” said Nikki Tate, a psychology sophomore.