Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

How I Learned to Drive
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland

Julia Gibson and Jeffrey Blair Cornell
Photo by HuthPhoto
Adolescence is marked by many milestones. At the top of the list for many of us was learning to drive, a scary yet liberating experience. But the oncoming of sexual maturity is a major life event, too, and Paula Vogel brings those two rites of passage together to tell a difficult and complicated story. Her Pulitzer Prize winning play How I Learned to Drive is being presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art through April 21.

Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1997, How I Learned to Drive tells the story of Li'l Bit (performed thoughtfully by Julia Gibson), who shares her experiences growing up in rural Maryland. We meet Li'l Bit as an adult, when she walks out of the depths and darkness of a garage or warehouse (Jan Chambers did the scenic design), where box upon box on shelf after shelf hold all of her memories. As those boxes are taken down and opened, we learn about her uncomfortable relationship with her aunt's husband, her Uncle Peck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). She flashes further and further back, with a three-person Greek chorus (Emily Bosco, Gabriella Cila, and Dan Toot) taking on a range of characters from Li'l Bit's life. Driving becomes a complex metaphor for both freedom and dependence, all complicated even more by themes of pedophilia and incest.

Ms. Vogel has described this play as a love story, but an unlikely one. Inspired in part by Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," Vogel has written a gripping piece, one that steers carefully clear of the comfort of placing blame on any one individual. Vogel plays expertly on our emotions, mixing just the right amount of humor in amongst all the pathos. The audience is left to draw our own conclusions about Li'l Bit's relationship with Uncle Peck—something disturbing, but never conveniently black and white.

Director Lee Sunday Evans delivers a production that feels rather modest, considering the rawness of many scenes and the tragic events that are implied more than shown. Sound and lighting design provided by Lee Kinney and Barbara Samuels, respectively, add subtle mood and texture. It is at many points a great help that Li'l Bit is embodied by an older version of herself.

Early on, Li'l Bit says, "Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson," and she doesn't seem to be talking about driving at all. For some, Li'l Bit's story may be shocking. For others, it may hit uncomfortably close to home. Either way, unflinching honesty is what Ms. Vogel and PlayMakers hold out with this riveting drama. In the midst of the #metoo movement, How I Learned to Drive has a freshness that makes it seem as though it could have been written yesterday.

How I Learned to Drive, through April 21, 2019, at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Paul Green Theatre at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd, Chapel Hill NC. For tickets and information, visit or call 919-962-7529.

Playwright: Paula Vogel
Director: Lee Sunday Evans
Scenic Design: Jan Chambers
Costume Design: Anne Kennedy
Lighting Design: Barbara Samuels
Sound Design: Lee Kinney
Composer: Daniel Kluger

Cast: (in alphabetical order):
Female Greek Chorus: Emily Bosco
Teenage Greek Chorus: Gabriella Cila
Uncle Peck: Jeffrey Blair Cornell
Li'l Bit: Julia Gibson
Male Greek Chorus: Dan Toot