Drive, She Said

Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winner, brilliantly realized.

By Cary M. Mazer

How I Learned to Drive

Philadelphia Theatre Company, Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St., through Nov. 22, 735-0631

It's 1969. A 17-year-old high school senior is sitting beside her uncle in the front seat of his car. After much talking around the subject, he undoes the clasp of her bra through her sweater, and asks if he can press his face against her breasts. The actors playing the two roles sit in chairs on opposite sides of the stage - acting out the movements of their physical contact though they are, physically, yards apart.

It's 1962. The same woman, not yet a teenager, sits beside her uncle in the front seat of his car. This time, the actors are actually sitting beside one another at the center of the stage. But this time the young woman's dialogue is spoken by another actor, who stands by the side of the stage. The young woman listens as her voice comes out of another person; as she is touched by her uncle, she looks at her own body as though someone else were being touched.

Yes, Paula Vogel's brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, is about pedophilia. But, as you see, it is, by virtue of its theatricality, also about physical dissociation; about owning your body, and your memories; about the emotional changes in a teenager's psyche, about the physical changes in a woman's body, and about the way the one fits into the other; about the definitions of one's adult self. Hence the issues of sexuality, of self-control, and of alcoholism. Hence the imagery of driving, steering and shifting. Hence the way the play's narrative commutes between past, present and future.

So much American drama (like Freudian psychoanalysis, on which so much of it is based) strives to identify the event that is the root cause of a character's pain. The present points to the past; the past is remembered and examined until the single traumatic moment is identified and purged.

But while Li'l Bit, the narrator of How I Learned to Drive, chauffeurs us back into her past, and the date of her Uncle Peck's initial sexual predation is pushed further and further back in her personal history, the play never identifies any root causes. We learn about the messages - about breasts, sex, dating, drinking - that Li'l Bit received from her family and her contemporaries at school. But we never learn when or why her father dropped out of her life, nor when and why her mother did. Neither we nor L'il Bit ever learn what events turned Uncle Peck into a predator, nor why he cannot return to South Carolina. Personal history, biographical causality, are, like the physical body, inescapable, yet floating, imprecise and indeterminable.

I didn't see the original production of the play off-Broadway two seasons ago, and so I don't know how closely director Maria Mileaf's production for the Philadelphia Theatre Company reinvents the play, nor how Neil Patel's setting (a golden picture frame of memory glowing under d.m. wood's lighting) re-envisions its physical landscape. But the play works brilliantly under their stewardship.

Jennifer Rohn is extraordinary as Li'l Bit, emotionally present and yet strangely absent, her smiling eyes, always on the edge of tears and yet resolutely never crying, her face reading equally well as the hardened adult, the coltish teenager and the vulnerable, barely pubescent child.

And John Dossett is charming, charismatic, believably dangerous and pathetically touching as Uncle Peck. The play sees Uncle Peck through Li'l Bit's eyes (quite a contrast with the male-narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita), figuring him as the Flying Dutchman, a lost soul seeking redemption in a sacrificial loving young woman. Neither the play nor L'il Bit judge the character, or ask us to judge him. And neither does Dossett.

The remaining characters are played, expertly, by Lisbeth Bartlett, Jennifer Childs and Chris Mixon.

"Sometimes to tell a secret," L'il Bit explains at the very beginning of the play, "you first have to teach a lesson."

Go and learn.