It’s surprising on the surface when Stage Left director Susan Hardie noted that actress Jenny Oliver compares the provocative play “How I Learned to Drive,” which is about pedophilia, incest and misogyny, as “an old friend.” But that changes upon digging deeper into playwright Paula Vogel’s extraordinary and surprising work about a young girl, Li’l Bit, portrayed by Lisa Edwards, who is manipulated by her nefarious Uncle Peck, played by Danny Anderson.
“How I Learned to Drive,” which will appear Friday through Dec. 17, is a fascinating and unpredictable play, which doesn’t portray Li’l Bit or Uncle Peck as good or evil but with respect.
The complex play about trust and desire, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, caused quite a stir off-Broadway after it debuted and Hardie was there to experience it in 1997.
“I saw the original production and it obviously stuck with me,” Hardie said. “I wanted to bring it to the stage. It’s a tough show to do.
“During one of the rehearsals we had, one of the actresses in the show, (Oliver) said she also has a close relationship with ‘How I Learned to Drive.’ She said it’s like an old friend. It sounds like an odd thing to say about a piece about incest and pedophilia, but it’s always been a friendly piece to me.
“I was drawn to the sheer theatricality and beauty of the piece, which was groundbreaking for its time and is obviously still relevant today. Vogel makes it palatable for us as we’re entertained by this powerful story unfold.”
The script is a memory play told primarily out of chronological order. Rebecca Craven is part of the three-part Greek chorus and plays Li’l Bit’s mother and Aunt, who is married to Uncle Peck.
“I get to live in Li’l Bit’s head,” Craven said. “I get to be the comic relief. We see all the sides of the characters and the dysfunction of the family. We see how things were allowed to happen and how it was enabled to happen. We see the juxtaposition of how your family loves you and wants to protect you but we also see their dysfunction and how they fail to protect Li’l Bit.”
Much has changed in society a quarter century after “How I Learned to Drive” debuted.
“Back then, people wouldn’t talk about such dark subjects as pedophilia and incest,” Hardie said. “That was so even for victims. But now people will talk about it.
“We’ve progressed and this groundbreaking piece is still so powerful now. I think today, in 2023, our scars are closer to the surface.”
The material prompted Stage Left to hire intimacy director Nike Imoru.
“We knew this play might trigger some things with our cast and crew so we’ve had an intimacy director help guide us through it,” Hardie said.
However, there are no explicit scenes or nudity.
“We don’t want to scare people away and everyone should know there’s no sexual contact,” Hardie said. “It’s all expressed in an implicit manner. Paula Vogel wrote this in a brilliant manner. The play is for a mature audience but there is nothing gratuitous.
“It’s a special play, which had such an impact on me. It’s a play you’ll never forget.”