Paula Vogel's play How I Learned to Drive opened in New York in February 1997. The play concerns an affair between its protagonist, named Li'l Bit, and her uncle Peck. The affair takes place over the course of years, with the character of Li'l Bit maturing from age eleven to eighteen before she puts an end to it. In spite of the serious situation, there are many comical elements of the play, which avoids the expected condemnation of this situation to look at the basic humanity that binds these two characters. It uses innovative staging techniques to fade from one time frame to another and one place to the next. It also uses just three actors, in addition to those playing Li'l Bit and Peck, to represent all of the other characters who affect their lives, especially their quirky, intimidating rural Maryland family. The addition of popular music from the early-and late-1960s, such as "Dream Baby" and "Little Surfer Girl," helps audiences understand the prevailing mood of the era that Vogel covers in this play: it is romantic and sexist, emphasizing youth and fun, the sort of social message that would make a girl like Li'l Bit, who has many feelings of insecurity, turn to a flawed relationship where she can bask in the reverence of an older man.
How I Learned to Drive is noteworthy for the many awards that it won, including the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Its initial off-Broadway run lasted for fourteen months. In addition to the Pulitzer, the play also was awarded an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, a New York Drama Critics' Award, an Outer Circle Critics Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award.
How I Learned to Drive is not told with a straightforward plot but is instead an uneven mixture of flashbacks, narration, monologues, and the kind of impersonal voice-over that accompanies driver education films. It starts with Li'l Bit as an adult, addressing the audience, as if she is giving a lecture about how to drive. She describes Maryland during her youth in the 1960s, and then the setting dissolves into 1969, with her uncle Peck sitting in a Buick Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Li'l Bit climbs in next to him. He takes the role of a child, telling her that he has been good, and she acts like an authority figure to him. When he says that he has not had a drink all week, she allows him the ‘‘small reward'' of undoing her bra. When they leave their parking spot, Li'l Bit drives.
At a family dinner in 1969, the conversation focusing on the size of her breasts is embarrassing to Li'l Bit. Her grandfather makes one wise crack after another about her breasts being big, until Li'l Bit flees the room for some privacy. Peck is the one who follows her and consoles her. Feeling better, Li'l Bit arranges to meet him later that night.
Grown-up Li'l Bit, as narrator, explains to the audience that she was kicked out of school in 1970 for constant drinking and then took a job in a factory and spent her nights drinking and racing through the streets in her car.
The scene fades to Li'l Bit and Peck at an inn far from home along the Maryland shore in 1968 (a year before the family dinner portrayed earlier). The occasion is a celebration of Li'l Bit having received her driver's license. Peck, who has had a drinking problem, does not order a drink, but he tells Li'l Bit to have one, even though she is only sixteen. Li'l Bit's mother shows up at the side of the stage to give the audience ‘‘A mother's guide to social drinking,’’ which includes such advice as to eat much bread and butter and never to order sugary "ladies'' drinks. Li' l bit orders a martini and quickly becomes drunk. When they leave, she is hardly able to walk, and she expects Peck to try to take advantage of her. She objects to their relationship, and he tells her not to worry, that he is a man and will not do anything sexual until she wants to.
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