Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

How I Learned to Drive
The Vortex Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Dean's recent review of What the Constitution Means to Me

Drew Groves, Gabrielle Ivey, Stephanie Grilo,
and Damian Drago

Photo by Broken Chain Photography
If people know anything at all about the play How I Learned to Drive, it is that it's a play about a pedophile. I hope that fact doesn't dissuade potential audience members from seeing it. I'm sure they will be pleasantly surprised at how well-crafted, how empathetic, and even, at times, how funny the play is. It's not at all the downer I expected it to be, although it does have its harrowing moments.

As I was watching the fine production at The Vortex Theatre, it occurred to me that the premise is a riff on "Lolita." The Humbert Humbert character here is Uncle Peck, a middle-aged man lusting after a pubescent (maybe even pre-pubescent) girl, in this case his niece nicknamed Lil Bit. But it's more than lust. He is desperately, hopelessly in love with her, and it ruins his life.

I thought the similarity to "Lolita" might just be a coincidence, but afterwards I discovered that the play's author, Paula Vogel, said in an interview that she was indeed influenced by Nabokov's novel, and that she was surprised to find herself sympathizing with the Humbert character. I too found Uncle Peck to be a much more complex character than I expected. Vogel does not depict him as merely an evil monster, as we have so often seen pedophiles portrayed. He is a sad, damaged, and lonely man, even though he is married. We never find out what happened to him during the war or whether he himself was abused as a child. Whatever circumstances turned him into what he is were to a large extent beyond his control, and for that, Lil Bit ultimately finds in herself a quantum of forgiveness for him.

The play is brilliantly constructed, moving back and forth in time from when Lil Bit is 11 years old until her first year of college. (She narrates it when she is considerably older, probably in her thirties.) To use the driving metaphor that recurs throughout the play, much of the story takes place in reverse gear. Life is lived in forward motion, but you have to keep checking the rear-view mirror because there is always something or someone there.

Scenes in which the teenage Lil Bit gets advice from her mother and grandmother about men or about drinking are comic gems. A scene at a sock hop when a nerdy kid keeps asking her to dance is hilarious. On the other hand, there is a masterfully written creepy monologue for Peck when he takes Lil Bit's young boy cousin out on the pretext of teaching him how to fish (just as teaching Lil Bit how to drive is the pretext for being alone with her). And there's a dialogue between niece and uncle near the end that kind of breaks my heart. The play might seem to be all over the place, but Vogel knew what she was doing, and I think it deserved the Pulitzer that it won in 1998.

There are so many quick scene changes that, although there is no dancing, I would say that the play is choreographed. The actors need to be exactly where they should be at exactly the right moment, and the coordination of movement here is flawless. The credit must go primarily to the director Theresa A. Carson, but also to stage manager Linnea Mae, lighting designers Ray Rey Griego, Aislinn Granzin, and Emma Ziegler, and board operator Alexander Papponi. The set designed by Joey Sauthoff accommodates all the action fluidly.

There are two casts, alternating nights. I saw Stephanie Grilo as Lil Bit and Damian Drago as Uncle Peck. Both do excellent work. Damian could come off as nothing but a sleazeball, but his performance has an aching quality to it, not just for sex but for love. Stephanie adds to her list of outstanding portrayals, showing us convincingly so many of the phases a teenage girl goes through. Stephanie and Damian alternate with Gabrielle Ivey and Drew Groves.

I thought this play would be a two-hander, but there are three other actors who play multiple roles. Vogel pretentiously calls them the Female Greek Chorus, Male Greek Chorus, and Teenage Greek Chorus. This makes no sense to me since they are participants in the play. They don't just comment on the action. And the Teenage Greek Chorus plays a grandmother, for example. In any case, the "chorus" roles were very ably played by Rachel Wiseman, Jeffrey Jung, and Nicee Wagner at the performance I attended. They alternate with Tasha Irvin, Sarah Kesselring, and Justin Young.

This play and this production deserve a wide audience (a mature one, not for children). It's much more than just a "pedophile play" and I highly recommend it.

How I Learned to Drive runs through June 2, 2024, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances Thursday, Friday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30; Sunday at 2:00. For tickets and information, please visit