The focal characters of Paula Vogel's 1997 play How I Learned to Drive are Uncle Peck, a grown man who orchestrates a seven-year-long sexual assault against his niece, and Li'l Bit, the object of his fixation who encourages his lust. On their own, the facts of the case qualify the play as a drama, more specifically a tragedy. A good case can be made that such subject matter could never be anything but inherently and irrevocably tragic. But the play has comic elements, and all turns out well for Li'l Bit, its narrator and protagonist, who, fifteen or twenty years after the action, can look back on her relationship with her uncle, scrutinize it, and then get on with her life. These elements support the interpretation, made by the author herself, that the play is actually a comedy with tragic elements. The fact that there is no definitive answer, that the work remains suspended between the two categories, is one of the sources of its power.
A character like Uncle Peck is not one that can be found likeable, in theory. Morally, he has no ground to stand on. In the beginning of the play, Li'l Bit is, as she describes herself, ‘‘very old, very cynical of the world, and a know it all. In short, I'm seventeen years old.’’ There might be some room for moral equivocation when Peck fondles and kisses her breasts. Audiences just may think that Peck accepts the girl for the age she feels, pushing her age upward by just a few months, and that he is a hopeless romantic who views love as a moral imperative more compelling than the legal age of consent. It is a shaky argument at best, one that is probably used by pedophiles all of the time; with her nearness to the magic eighteenth birthday and her permission to his touch, he at least has a case to argue. The play only starts with that situation, though: where it builds to, even after the news of Peck's death while Li'l Bit is in her twenties, is a scene of the same man fondling the same girl's breasts when she is eleven. There is no argument that could make this acceptable.
In spite of the horror that he is responsible for, the potential psychological destruction of his niece, Peck cannot be written off by audiences as a monster. He can't be seen as a decent man with the one small flaw of child molestation: the best that can be said about him is that he is a complex character. Vogel creates his complexity with an even hand that makes it difficult for audiences not to care about what he is going to do every moment he is onstage. Li'l Bit is complex, too, but audiences are not as resistant to feeling what she feels: because she is a child, the presumption of innocence is hers. Peck is guilty from the start. The greatest challenge that How I Learned to Drive faces is the challenge to invest Peck with enough innocence that audiences will leave the theater accepting his basic humanity.
It would be more difficult to accomplish this if innocence were a peripheral matter to this play, one that could only be hinted at symbolically. As it stands, however, innocence is a central issue, which allows Vogel to address it directly. The protagonist, Li'l Bit, can remember her early sexualization with nostalgia because, as an adult, she knows how wrong it was to want to give up her innocence so quickly, but at the same time, she understands why she wanted to do it. Even without the presence of Uncle Peck, Li'l Bit's family life is warped, a fact made clear early in the play with the information that family nicknames are based on genitalia, giving her an awareness of sex at an age when she was too young to cope with the knowledge. She sees her grandmother lead a miserable life because of her efforts to deny her own sexual urges, while her mother tells her that there is nothing wrong with sex, so long as it is intertwined with love. Her grandfather, "Big Papa'' (audiences are told that his is one of the genitalia-inspired nicknames), is a bully who uses his wife as a receptacle for sex and who has no patience for...
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