How I Learned to Drive
by John Stoltenberg
I’ve been wary of this play since it was first produced in 1997. I remember hearing that it was about a pedophile and his niece and that its treatment of the uncle was sympathetic. So I didn’t trust it. And I stayed away.
I was not reluctant as a survivor, or as someone who anticipated being triggered about past abuse. I’m aware there are some who have avoided this play because of that. My reason was less personal than political. I didn’t want to see an abuser valorized. The world is already glutted with that.
Plus, years ago in New York, I saw a pandering production of the playwright’s 1994 play Hot ‘N’ Throbbing. It dealt with pornography and domestic violence in a way that felt skeevy and left me utterly cold. Looking back, judging from its current Wikipedia entry, I suspect the production was at cross-purposes with the playwright’s intent, or maybe I just wasn’t getting it. But at the time I was put off her work.
As you might surmise by the way I’ve backed up into this parking space that is my column, How I Learned to Drive took me on a very different ride from the one I feared.
What made me decide to give it a go was when Round House Theatre announced that it would be directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. I first got to know of deep values in her work when she directed Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s play based on the feminist classic by Virginia Woolf. Recently I marveled at the “magnificent precision” in her direction of Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. So it was inconceivable to me that McGinnis would take on this project if it was going to be problematic—meaning sucky in its treatment of the pedophile and dodgy in its treatment of his prey.
The pre-show soundtrack—with lyrics like “Thank heaven for little girls” and “My baby does the hanky panky”—seemed a little leering. But what changed my mind about the play itself once it began was the precision with which Vogel’s script depicted each beat and breath in the progression of the uncle and niece’s relationship, and the meticulously specific performances of it by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Li’L Bit and Peter O’Connor as Uncle Peck.
We never doubt that between niece and uncle there is a very real relationship, and we never lose sight of the fact that it is a profoundly imbalanced one. Each move Uncle Peck makes is about seduction—though Li’l Bit is unaware. And every response on her part is about her longing to be seen and appreciated—a need Uncle Peck sees only as something to play on for his purposes.
Here, for instance, is an exchange from a scene when the uncle and the niece are parked in a car after he has taken her to a restaurant and coaxed her to have a drink.
PECK: Have I forced you to do anything?
(There is a long pause as Li’l Bit tries to get sober enough to think this through.)
LI’L BIT: …I guess not
PECK: We are just enjoying each other’s company. I’ve told you, nothing is going to happen between us until you want it to. Do you know that?
LI’L BIT: Yes.
PECK: Nothing is going to happen until you want it to. (A second more, with him staring ahead. Then, softly:) Do you want something to happen?
(PECK reaches over and strokes her face, very gently. LI’L BIT softens, reaches for him, and buries her head in his neck. Then she kisses him. Then she moves away, dizzy again.)
LI’L BIT: …I don’t know. (PECK smiles; this has been good news for him — it hasn’t been a “no”.)
PECK: Then I’ll wait. I’m a very patient man. I’ve been waiting for a long time. I don’t mind waiting.
Make no mistake, the performance gets intense. “Nothing is going to happen until you want it to” becomes a leitmotif throughout the play. “Only what you want,” he says to her while he is shooting suggestive photographs of her in his basement when she is 13.
Though we don’t find out right away, the play is structured in the form of the grown Li’l Bit’s flashbacks as she recalls the trauma her uncle caused her, in order to reclaim herself from it. The scenes are not chronological. A metaphor about driving, going forward then shifting to reverse, and years projected on the back wall let us know that. Though we may not always track exactly how old Li’l Bit is in her remembering, we can easily follow the narrative of what caused her pain. Of one particularly harrowing incident, she says, “That was the last day I lived in my body.”
Both the script and the production foreground Li’L Bit’s pain—probably made more recognizable as such in the #MeToo present than it was back in the day. And both the script and the production frame the bad end that the uncle comes to not as pitiable but as pathetic. Our sympathies are never messed with by a trumped-up he-said/she-said equivalence.
What finally won me over about How I Learned to Drive was when I reflected on all I had witnessed about Uncle Peck’s slow and subtle manipulation and all I had witnessed about Li’l Bit’s guileless longing to trust and be loved. And I realized there was more here than what’s purported to be.
As a thought experiment, I took away their age difference and imagined them both legal adults. (I know, that would make the play no longer a story about pedophilia, but bear with me here.) If you consider precisely the moves Uncle Peck makes and how Li’l Bit falls for them—what is spelled out in Vogel’s script and persuasively present in McGinnes’s direction—you have a man whose art of the con is so nuanced and intuitive it’s the perfect playbook for pickup artists. And you have a woman whose societally induced insecurity has exposed her to wiles that she wants to believe mean adoration.
Much of what happens to Li’L Bit happens to women all the time. Much of what Uncle Peck does, men do all the time. Why are we appalled by this only when it happens to children?
That’s when I came around to thinking that How I Learned to Drive is a classic text on the dramaturgy of sexual politics. It not only deserves to be seen; it needs to be seen.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes. with no intermission.