How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel features acclaimed stars Norbert Leo Butz as Uncle Peck and Elizabeth Reaser as Lil Bit. The play’s current run is the play’s revival in New York City after its premiere here 15 years ago. During its first run here Paula Vogel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.Vogel raises awareness about an issue that is often mulled over in modern society. She forces the audience to deal with the “touchy subjects” of child molestation and pedophilia. However, while the topic deserves plenty of attention the play does not fully do it justice.
The acting of the main character “Lil Bit” (played by Reaser) is overshadowed by the more compelling performance of the supporting characters. Mama’s somewhat bitter diatribe concerning “How to Drink Like a Lady” is much more witty and inviting then Reaser’s one note performance. While Leo Butz employs physical and vocal range to fully develop his character, Reaser appears stuck in one static portrayal. She rests on the stereotypical depiction of a teenager (when she enacts the adolescent version of herself) and in doing so cheapens the character’s actual depth and emotional struggle. By up-playing the eager side of Lil-Bit’s personality she takes away from the inner turmoil that might afflict a girl in Lil Bit’s complicated situation.
It can also be argued that the writing in How I Learned to Drive is not as strong as one might hope. Much of the script is comprised of punch line heavy crude humor, such as when Big Daddy (Lil Bit’s grandfather) threatens to “wheel” Lil Bit’s “thangs around in a wheelbarrow” if they get any bigger. Furthermore the metaphors in the play are in most cases too abstract to really leave an impression. For instance, the “Flying Dutchman” analogy used by Lil Bit to describe Uncle Peck might excite the audience at first, but as she fleshes it out it becomes too much to digest too soon and thus loses coherence and impact.
Overall the play deserves credit for the topic it discusses, but neither the script nor the physical performance was incredibly impressive.