HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE: A Harrowing Tale of Forbidden Love at STAGES at CCC

by Jack Shaw
Melissa Rittmann (Teenage Chorus), Melissa Connell (Li'lBit), Brooke Behmke (Uncle Peck) in HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at STAGES at Camden County College.

Melissa Rittmann (Teenage Chorus), Melissa Connell (Li’lBit), Brooke Behmke (Uncle Peck) in HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at STAGES at Camden County College.

Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is naturally not about learning to drive as it is learning all about life’s often hard truth, as well as the wrong truth (the lies we tell ourselves), and the sad truth about human failings. It’s a play about mistaking familial love for a different kind of love, mixed-up longing for a missing father, plain mixed-up love, and the absence of true romantic love. All this is on the road and as portrayed by Li’l Bit at various ages and as described by Li’l Bit as an adult about her encounters with Uncle Peck.

Such is the complex nature of the play, masterfully glued together by director Marjorie Sokoloff’s steady hand. When you come into the auditorium, you know the play has something to do with driving because there is a street running up the middle of the stage background and standing lamps that appear to be reminiscent of street lamps. To me, these stage props without the “lamps” also appeared to be a symbolic hanging platform; however, I could be making more out of that than is intended. Surrounding it all are erotic pin-up images that one might see drawn on the early pages of Playboy Magazine or other similar types of men’s magazines or calendars. These images, by the way, are beautifully drawn as if to be very important to the meaning of the play, and they are.

Throughout the play, the point of view dances with time in telling the story as flashbacks to Li’l Bit’s childhood or teenage days and her growing relationship to Uncle Peck at the time. It is not in a chronological order but that is on purpose so we’ll listen to the whole story. These flashbacks are prefaced by Li’l Bit’s adult narration. We feel every emotion that she feels. At times we even laugh with her. We also feel her sadness and her anger, or the anger we know she should be feeling. We want to save her. We are repelled and sympathetic towards Uncle Peck as we grow to understand him better. We are sometimes as confused as Li’l Bit, which makes us wonder what happens to the real child with less of a handle on reality than we have when confronted with this kind of situation. Especially when it is not black and white. And we know life’s reality rarely is.

Melissa Connell (Li'l Bit) and Brooke Behmke (Uncle Peck) in a scene from HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE.

Melissa Connell (Li’l Bit) and Brooke Behmke (Uncle Peck) in a scene from HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE.

STAGES at Camden County College’s HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is wonderfully directed, superbly acted with a terrific ensemble, an unusually beautiful set and great lights. Although everyone deserves honorable or stand-out mention, the two who spent the most time in front of the audience it seems gave the most in personal stock: Brooke Behmke who played Uncle Peck and Melissa Connell who played Li’l Bit both had to put so much of themselves in the back of their minds while they gave life to these often painful roles to make the show what it was. The rest of the amazing actors who played several roles: James Collins, Ashley Reimer and Melissa Rittmann. Kudos to all!

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is a drama that “pulls no punches in its examination of the human heart,” says its director. And I agree. Don’t worry. It won’t break your heart. I can’t guarantee it won’t make you cry a little.

I could have told you this story a different way. Instead, I told you what I saw and what you will see. It wouldn’t be fair to the playwright who did such an extraordinary job crafting what might be considered an homage to LOLITA. While the same subject has been broached by other playwrights such as Arthur Miller in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE where he looks at an uncle’s love that might be construed as another kind of love–an incestuous longing. What stands out here in HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is the unique way it is presented, with both sides of a painful story and as a harrowing tale of forbidden love.

“And I see Uncle Peck in my mind, in his Chevy ’56, a spirit driving up and down the back roads of Carolina–looking for a young girl who, of her own free will, will love. Release him.” — Li’l Bit

by Paula Vogel
Directed by Marjorie Sokoloff
March 1 – 9, 2013
STAGES at Camden County College
Little Theatre
311 College Drive
Blackwood, NJ 08012
(856) 227-7200

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