14 November 2016
Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive is a tough play because it takes on the unsettling subject of childhood sexual abuse. Despite the difficult subject matter, the Red Masquers—a theatre group at Duquesne University—gave an excellent performance, directed by Justin Sines, with really strong acting throughout.
The protagonist and primary narrator of How I Learned to Drive is Li’l Bit, a young woman who grows up being sexually abused by Uncle Peck, which predictably compromises her ability to even conceptualize a healthy relationship. All we really see of her family life is that they are rather vulgarly open about sexuality, and because Li’l Bit develops breasts at a young age her entire school career seems shaped by bullying and harassment. But the main storyline focuses on Uncle Peck’s long term sexual abuse, which, while not physically violent, utilizes most of the typical techniques of an abuser: claiming to love the victim, trying to give them a false sense of control, cajoling, bargaining, and making the victim feel alternately secure and vulnerable. This storyline is interspersed with Uncle Peck teaching Li’l Bit to drive, which is where much of the abuse happens; the driving school style instructions played over the loud speaker become something of a commentary on the movement of the play.
The Red Masquers did a fantastic job bringing these characters to life, which, predictably, was not always comfortable for the audience. Michael Makar (Uncle Peck) was easy to hate as the smarmy sexual abuser. His portrayal bordered between the charming and the unsettling, which effectively showed how abusers so often manipulate their victims’ emotions. And if Makar brought to life the abuser, Fiona Montgomery (Li’l Bit) embodied an abuse victim. Throughout the play, Montgomery always seemed as though a part of herself was shut off, as though there was always a defense, even if Li’l Bit wasn’t consciously aware of it. We saw that is Montgomery’s posture, which was often stooped or hunched inward, not making eye contact with others, and a propensity to be alone. All of these are potential signs that someone, especially a child, has been abused and no longer feels safe in their own body. Though the one critique I would make of the performance is that Montgomery played the character the same way in the earliest scene in the play, when Li’l Bit is 11 and the abuse begins. There didn’t seem to be much of a change from the pre-abuse character to the post-abuse character. The rest of the parts were played well by Anthony Fellowes, Keely Ann Sinni, and Nikki Purwin. Each played multiple supporting roles, including Li’l Bit’s Aunt and grandparents, her school friends, a restaurant waiter, etc.
While the acting was strong, for me the play fell short for two main reasons (and I don’t know whether the Red Masquers cut Vogel’s text or performed the entirety of it). One structural feature that didn’t work were the continual stops for characters—usually Li’l Bit—to narrate things. Changes in time were continually announced as the show moved back and forth from 1969 to the early 70s and back to the early, middle, or late 60s. Most of these shifts were done by allowing Li’l Bit to stop the action of the play and give exposition, in a way that felt both slow and somewhat lazy, because much of what was told to us could have been shown.
The more serious problem is that the play develops a constellation of important elements related to sexual abuse, but really only pursues the immediate relationship between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit. There is so much that the play gives us just in tiny passing references, but that is actually incredibly important in perpetuating the culture of abuse. For instance, when Li’l Bit’s mother says that if anything happens between Li’l Bit (aged, I think 13 at that point) and Uncle Peck (in his 30s or early 40s), the mother will blame her daughter. Or the scene where a now adult Li’l Bit experiences herself as the abuser when she picks up and seduces an underage boy on a bus—though it isn’t clear whether this actually happens or whether the seduction is just her imagination. But elements like victim blaming, the isolation of victims, and the perpetuation of cycles of violence are brought up but not dealt with sufficiently in my opinion. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the play is simply devoted to showing the abuse by Uncle Peck in a variety of different guises. In its single-minded focus, the play seems to risk tipping over into the territory of the after-school special.