The season opener for Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is How I Learned to Drive. That’s a subject in which I am very interested, since I’m the only person I know who has never—since I got my driver’s license at 16—had an accident or gotten a traffic ticket.
However, no driving skill prepares you for this play by Paula Vogel. It won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1998, as well as Obies, Drama Desk Awards and an Outer Circle Award. Yes, the play is about learning to drive, and there are plenty of automotive references and sound effects … but, mostly it is about sexual abuse.
Back 20 years ago, things were different, yet eerily the same. Back then, we were reeling from the revelations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Today, look at our list of exposed predators, from Cosby to Moonves to Weinstein.
Founding artistic director Ron Celona took the stage to greet the audience, and was completely honest: This play was not the company’s first choice for season opener, but the writer of the other play is being sued by nine women over sexual harassment. However, Celona and his board decided that this all is a topic that should be addressed, so they chose How I Learned to Drive, and were even able to slide the first play’s actors into the new play. How great is that? (The show runs almost an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, so advise your kidneys of this beforehand.)
This is not a play that you will “like.” You might be stunned, maybe horrified, perhaps confused. You will not leave the theater with a song in your heart and a skip in your step. It is set in the 1960s, in a very rural setting—think hillbillies, crackers, hicks (their words, not mine) from the South.
The open set is creatively jumbled with imprints of maps rolled across the walls and angled risers topped by tables and chairs of various sizes and shapes. In fact, the set holds a surprise that doesn’t come out until the final scenes, so kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for that special and unexpected touch.
The cast members get to play multiple roles, always an exciting challenge for actors and an opportunity to show off versatility. It takes a while for the story to come forward as we see Uncle Peck, shrewdly played by Dennis Gersten, patiently stalking his niece “Li’l Bit,” intricately portrayed by actress Angela Sauer. The “Greek Chorus” roles are played by Charles Pasternak, Debra Cardona and Jillian Taylor, who delight us when they get to strut their stuff in a variety of other parts. Director Joanne Gordon has mined both the stage set and her actors for maximum effect, and she handles the potential awkwardness with taste. The lighting changes are terrific, and the sound effects are both legion and greatly effective.
The results of sexual abuse are dealt with by showing how the victim’s feelings inevitably shut down. We watch what happens to this girl and how she deals with it. Yet we are faced with her role in the seduction, too—is she part of the problem? She brokers a deal with her uncle that changes both their lives. Playwright Vogel squarely faces the role of alcohol and alcoholism in these characters, as well as their “addiction transfer” from one obsession to another, believing that they are cured from their first fixation by rationalizing a change to the second. But in this play, those shut-down feelings somehow come back when one is driving.
Wow, what a revelation. There are a lot of people who “love” to drive and see it as a time for the hands to be busy while the mind roams free. America’s love affair with cars is briefly touched on, too. The ’60s through the ’90s gave us some gorgeous and unique designs in the automotive world. Cars were considered sex symbols back then, and the inevitable relationship between cars and people-sex is obvious, emotional and complicated, both in this play and in life.
How I Learned to Drive is a thought-provoking work, no matter how distasteful the topic. We need to get real about this ongoing problem lurking in our society at every level—and only by facing it will we understand it. Then, maybe, we might actually learn how to fix it. Is it possible?
How I Learned to Drive is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Oct. 30.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.