Most stories about star-crossed lovers begin with two individuals from contrasting backgrounds; they escalate with disconcerting external battles, progress with a “love that conquers all” and end with either tragedy or triumph. In the Pulitzer Prize winning play How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, we see the trials and tribulations of a pair of such “star-crossed lovers” caught in an entirely taboo relationship in an all too common setting: the American suburb. The current revival, directed by Kate Whoriskey and presented at Second Stage Theatre, is brought to life by the superb Norbert Leo Butz as the pedophilic uncle of Lil’ Bit, played by the endearing Elizabeth Reaser. Vogel explores the roots of the relationship between the naïve teenager and her infatuated uncle, submerging us into their troubling relationship masked with “driving lessons.” The tale is reminiscent of Lolita, a classic infamous for encompassing the same themes that this play dared to explore: pedophilia, incest, and the loss of innocence.
But rest assured; there are comedic moments. The humor rests with the charming supporting characters, played by the versatile trio of Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Regan and Marnie Schulenberg. They dominate the stage with their respective characters, from Regan’s portrayal of Lil Bit’s lenient mother to Cahoon’s neurotic depiction of Lil Bit’s grandfather and Schulenberg’s hilarious turn as her grandmother. How I Learned didn’t falter for the most part – it held its own as a well-written play with some great acting. But it did lack some luster with Reaser’s unsettling portrayal of a seventeen year old, which is more uncomfortable to watch than the intimate scenes between Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck.
There is a lot to be gained and a lot left to think about in the play. Motives are questioned and actions are left unexplained. Why does Uncle Peck do what he does? Why is Lil’ Bit so naïve? Why is her family so oblivious? Vogel’s script, however, doesn’t lose touch with reality; it embraces the different facets of a lifestyle left unseen and unacknowledged by those that are in denial. The painful reality of the play makes it a more riveting experience than one would expect. How I Learned to Drive dives into the depths of what we call wrong not by making it right, but by making it known.