A young girl steers through a disturbing relationship with her uncle in the devastating drama, “How I Learned to Drive,’” at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre.
Written by American playwright Paula Vogel, “How I Learned to Drive” premiered Off Broadway in 1997 and earned Vogel the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998. The writer is known for tackling society’s taboo subjects in her plays.
During the 1960s, a little girl nicknamed Li’l Bit (Erin Parsons) is living in rural Maryland with her intimidating extended family. Alcoholic Uncle Peck (Don Stewart) is the only family member to show an interest in Li’l Bit. Taking advantage of the absence of a father figure, he begins to sexually molest her at a young age, the first time during a driving lesson, and then continues throughout her adolescence and teenage years.
Li’l Bit’s mother becomes concerned about Peck’s interest in her daughter but does nothing to intervene. Aunt Mary is oblivious to what is going on between her husband and niece. The ignorant grandfather and devout grandmother are too caught up in their narrow world to notice that anything is wrong.
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Although Li’l Bit feels uncomfortable around her uncle, Peck is the only family member who supports her dream of going to college. She feels a strange kinship with him as she navigates through her turbulent family life and awkwardness at school. During college, she is finally forced to confront her unhealthy relationship with her uncle.
Using the metaphor of driving to mirror issues of control and manipulation, “How I Learned to Drive” is narrated by Li’l Bit through a series of flashbacks and driving lessons. The production is expertly directed by Ron Clark.
Besides Parsons and Stewart, three additional actors portray family members and schoolmates, represented in the play as a Female Greek Chorus (Valerie Pallai), Male Greek Chorus (Bobby Kendrick) and Teenage Greek Chorus (Stephanie Spencer).
Parsons depicts a confused young girl at various ages with remarkable playfulness and despair. Stewart deftly balances his portrayal of Uncle Peck with an honest sweetness and subtle creepiness. Both actors show great insight into their characters’ motivation. The remaining cast does a skillful job playing a variety of supporting roles.
The set design by David Linfield in “How I Learned to Drive” uses largesized traffic signs to create separate spaces on the stage. Clever staging and spotlighting are used to emphasize different time periods. Pam Hester is the light/sound operator and stage manager. Lighting design is by Kevin Harris.
Before each scene, screens on each side of the stage project a different driving lesson from a 1960s high school student driving class. Voiceovers are performed by Jody Hovland.
Costume design by Randal Sumabat is simple and colorless (beige and white) to represent the stark reality of the subject matter.
Although touted as a dramatic comedy, “How I Learned to Drive” is a serious drama with little humor. However, mature audiences should not shy away from the play’s tough subject. It is an intelligent and creative portrait of the darker side of humanity told with compassion and empathy.
This painful journey of a young girl’s seduction is a haunting exercise about the power of lust and exploitation.
‘HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE’
7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Oct. 11
San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
$15 to $30 786-2440 or http://www.slolittletheatre.org