“How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel is a disturbing play.
An uncle and his niece. Dark basements and back roads at night. The opening scene sets the stage well enough: Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck sit in a quiet car; it’s a full moon out; firm hands slip up a thin blouse. The story could end there — but for the audience’s benefit, it doesn’t. Instead, we jump backward and forward in time, from past to deeper past to present day. This is not a play about incest and pedophilia, good and bad or right and wrong. A family lives in rural Maryland. A girl is 11, and 13, and 17 and now 30. A man once gave her driving lessons. We watch everything unravel from there.
In the wrong hands, “How I Learned to Drive” could easily fail. The weight the show’s two central actors carry is enormous: there’s always the danger of coming off too flat or too maudlin, caricatures both. However, Marianna Gailus ’17 as Li’l Bit and Daniel Rudin ’19 as Uncle Peck strike the perfect balance between subtlety and drama.
Gailus deftly switches between the different ages and different facets of her character. She is shy, she is coy, she is angry, she is deeply confused. What makes Gailus’s acting so believable — and so incredible — is not just her ability to deliver her lines well but also her talent in conveying emotion through the slightest of cues. A sudden intake of breath, a quick downward look, that trembling in her fingers must be real, she must be Li’l Bit. It’s only after the lights have come back on that the audience realizes that the show is over, and it was all a performance.
Rudin, too, excels in his role as Uncle Peck. He has accomplished the impossible: making the audience sympathetic to a 40-year-old man in love with his niece. Rudin, of course, doesn’t ever gloss over the inherent creepiness that comes with his character. Even with that charming smile and those hands in pockets, there is always an inherent tension that Rudin threads into his acting — Uncle Peck knows that this situation is not quite right. But Rudin is just so magnetic that he commands the stage in whatever scene he is in. In many instances, Uncle Peck is just an observer, watching Li’l Bit from the side of the room or from the back seat of the car. It’s a testament to Rudin’s skill as an actor that, even in these silent moments, his presence is painfully, brilliantly palpable.
That’s not to say, however, that the performances of the Greek chorus in “How I Learned to Drive” are any less good. Awa Franklin ’19, Lilla Brody ’18 and Hershel Holiday ’18 switch from character to character with a fluidity that can only be admired. Brody, in particular, stands out as Aunt Mary. Her monologues to the audience about Mary’s obligations as a wife, but ultimately as a woman, are heartbreaking.
The production staff of “How I Learned to Drive” deserve commendation for their work. Under the direction of Nina Goodheart ’19 and the production of Samuel Bennett, the show doesn’t just play out in front of the audience — it lives and breathes. One highlight is the use of image and video in the show. A screen in the back displays driving instructions, demarkating the different scenes of the play, as well as pictures that correspond with each scene. It’s a clever use of technology, not as a gimmick but sd an integral facet in bringing all the moving parts of the show together.
“How I Learned to Drive” is more than a must-see. It’s the kind of experience that follows the audience long after the metaphorical curtain has come down, after the actors have packed up and gone home. Who is the victim? Who is the aggressor? Are these characters terrible people, or people who have done terrible things? This play is either the best love story that has ever been written or the worst love story that has ever been written. It’s a good show either way.