I should begin by saying that Lolita is one of my favorite books. Despite being garishly inappropriate in its subject matter, it has such beauty in it: the way it twists around what love is, and presents to you something warped yet entirely lovely, even though the protagonist’s obsession with the young girl never becomes any less despicable no matter how many times you read it. It’s always unsettling, always beautiful.
In How I Learned to Drive, the Pulitzer-prize winning play that will kick off the UCSB Theater and Dance season, author Paula Vogel attempts a similar narrative, though it is the young girl, and not the man who loves her, who tells the tale.
In a note included in the play’s program, the play’s director, Tom Whitaker, notes that Vogel’s play is, in an odd way, about love.
“How I Learned to Drive…is the compassionate and complex story of a young girl’s sexual awakening and empowerment at the hands of her abuser,” Whitaker writes. “It is a kind of love story. The play is sort of like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, had it been narrated from Lolita’s point of view.”
Whitaker chose the play for his young actors after having fallen in love with Vogel’s words over a decade ago.
“I saw the original production in 1997 and wanted to do it since then,” Whitaker said. “One of the things that hit me was how well it is written. There’s not an unnecessary word in it. It’s a challenging play for your actors, but [when deciding what play to choose for this season] I thought—if not now, when?”
Despite its intense subject matter, Whitaker notes that the play isn’t all doom and gloom. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “very humanly told. Also, it’s funny.”
The play’s protagonist, a young woman named Lil Bit, is taken advantage of throughout the course of the play by a member of her family, her Uncle Peck. The play “doesn’t excuse it at all, it takes it seriously,” Whitaker said. “But the play is the process of working through something.” He noted that “the girl is not entirely helpless. Lil Bit is given a sense of efficacy.” The metaphor of driving, a skill Peck relays to Lil Bit, represents Lil Bit’s eventual acquisition of a sense of control over her life.
Whitaker said that having the play executed by university students doesn’t affect it as much as one might think. “It’s possible for people in their twenties to play 35,” he said. Lil Bit is 35 during the play’s present-time, he said, and Peck, who appears only in her memories, is aged 35 to 45. Whitaker said the actors portraying them, Alexia Dox and Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann, seem up to the challenge. “I think Uncle Peck is harder to play,” he said. “We have an actor who has a sense of emotional maturity on stage. . . I don’t want it to be easy. It’s not your ordinary piece of theatre.”