When Paula Vogel’s dark comic drama How I Learned to Drive won the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Play back in 1997, it was heralded as a breakthrough role for Mary-Louise Parker as Li’l Bit, a woman looking back on a relationship of sexual abuse between her and her uncle. It was also praised for taking a subject that had long been considered “off-limits” and turning it into something almost … funny.
UCSB’s Tom Whitaker, who is directing a production of How I Learned to Drive, explains, “It doesn’t feel like I’m directing a tragedy; it feels like a comedy. … How I Learned to Drive is probably a ride that you wouldn’t knowingly take, but you don’t know that until you are on it.”
In addition to the two main characters, Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit, there are three roles that the play’s stage directions describe as “Greek choruses,” a “Male Greek Chorus,” a “Female Greek Chorus,” and a “Teenage Greek Chorus.” The actors who play these parts also double as the other characters in the play, including Uncle Peck’s wife, the enabler who is implicated in the story’s core dilemma of incest and pedophilia.
When asked how he has coped with producing a play on such taboo subjects in a college setting, Whitaker explains, “There are gifts that we are given by those who hurt us, and that’s something that we all need to understand. The show has been done at many other colleges, and all we are trying to do with this production is offer the most honest and loving version we can make of it.
“Alexia Dox, who was Iphigenia last year, is bringing extraordinary sensitivity and depth to the role of Li’l Bit, and her performance will carry the show’s ultimate message, which is a complex and compassionate one of awakening. It sounds crazy, but this play is about a journey to healing, and not only is it about a woman’s empowerment; it’s also a kind of love story.”
UCSB’s production of How I Learned to Drive opens at the Performing Arts Theater this Friday, November 5, at 8 p.m. and runs through Saturday, November 13. For tickets, showtimes, and information, call 893-7221 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.