How I Learned to Drive at UCSB
Paula Vogel’s Play Tackles Disturbing Subject Head On
Set in rural Maryland in the 1960s and 1970s, How I Learned to Drive skips around in time, using ironic presentational segments to frame an intricate sequence of flashback scenes that end when they reach the story’s beginning. And since this is a story about the sexual abuse of a child over a period of years stretching from age 11 to age 18, its beginning makes for the most devastating possible ending. Despite the brutal final destination, laughs come readily along the way in How I Learned to Drive. There’s never a false note in the script and nothing cheap about even the most satirical moments. In fact, every bit of levity here is well earned, even as the lingering sadness of this show overwhelms. At its heart, there’s a hole so big you could drive a truck through it.
The play’s centerpiece, Li’l Bit (Alexia Dox) reels around the stage like a woman pursued by demons, hounded by her angry and creepy grandfather, condescended to by her grandmother and aunt, and hazed by her envious middle school classmates. It’s no wonder that she seeks the perceived protection and real understanding held out to her by her alcoholic uncle Peck (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann). Alas, his sheltering presence comes with strings attached, one of which binds her to an increasingly inappropriate series of driving lessons, and the other of which extends beyond their physical relationship and into her adult life, where the trauma of her childhood abuse drives her to drink heavily and drop out of college.
Jordan Holmes, Emily McKeown, and Allie Granat all do excellent work as the male, female, and teenage Greek choruses, respectively, and add something more than that when called upon to take the roles of the other members of this unhappy, unholy family. But the leads carry the show, and they are both outstanding. Dox stares into the abyss without flinching, and Fernandez-Baumann, with his soulful accented voice, creates that abyss nearly perfectly.