How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

Penobscot Theatre, Bangor, ME 1999

My program notes

A love story and an authentic moral contradiction, How I Learned to Drive challenges our definitions of family love and romantic love; it blurs the boundaries between right and wrong.

Paula Vogel says, “We receive great love from the people who harm us.” Drive dramatizes the great gifts that L’il Bit receives from someone who hurts her greatly. The most important element of this beautiful, troubling and very funny play is the strength, the drive, if you will, that L’il Bit discovers within herself. Strength that she learns from her “abuser.” Drive is not meant to represent all incest, all sexual abuse. I think there are several different ways to tell this story, but the only dramatically viable option is to explore the terrible, wonderful love story that never should have happened. Paula Vogel challenges us to look beyond Peck’s abuse of L’il Bit and to see the relationship in all its facets. Drive forces us to see Peck as a whole being: it makes it impossible for us to dismiss him as a monster.

One particular challenge

In this production, I chose, with my actors, to tell the whole story. To look at Peck’s abuse, at his damage, at the moments when he absolutely goes over the line, and also at the moments when L’il Bit initates the next step, when she comes looking for him, and when she finally goes looking for herself.  The moments of her complicity in what happens.  This made a number of people in the audience uncomfortable; as survivors of incest, they felt that I wasn’t telling their stories fairly.  With the greatest sympathy for those individuals, I explained in post-show discussions that we weren’t telling their stories, we were telling this story.

Drive contends that there comes a moment when the past must be processed and one has to try to find some peace. Paula Vogel has said, and many of us know, “Many people stay rooted in anger against transgressions that occurred in childhood,” and this rage poisons their relationships with others as well as themselves for the rest of their lives. How does one learn to live with the memory of a traumatic situation or event? How does one begin to acknowledge her own complicity, if need be, her own participation in something perhaps beautiful as well as disturbing? How does one forgive the transgressor and learn to forgive one’s self? How, finally, does one learn how to drive?

Reviews

Alicia Anstead, Bangor Daily News:
“You will be uncomfortable in your seat for this 90-minute fast ride.You will squirm. The scenery will scare you. You will laugh when you know you should scream. And, best of all, you will be totally lost.

“Guest director Kathleen Powers, who directed Cymbeline at last summer’s Maine Shakespeare Festival, works this production for both its ambiguity and drama. She goes for the laughs — of which there are many — and then shapes scenes with such gentle anguish that your skin turns cold. Powers expertly gets the push me-pull me rhythms, and despite the audience’s sure reaction of mystification to nearly everything that goes on in this play, the final message is one of compassion.”

Anne Porter, The Ellsworth American:
“A flawless performance of a beautiful but flawed work… How I Learned to Drive is a fine, difficult, passionate play and the Penobscot Theatre makes the most of it… a masterful job of avoiding stock characters and breathing contradictory, convincing life into the roles.”

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Shakespeare can transform a human heart.
– Curt Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i