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Theater Review: 90's Play 'How I Learned To Drive' Reaches Into Current Headlines

Back in the late 1990s Brown University professor Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “How I Learned to Drive,” a startling work about guilt, need and levels of responsibility. Now Providence’s Wilbury Group has brought the play back. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale says its more vibrant, and necessary, than ever.

In 90 minutes with no intermission, “How I Learned to Drive” is a 20 year old work of art that is more important and vital than ever. Vogel’s unsparing play reaches more than ever into today’s headlines. It is a play that seems never to stop throwing out questions of who is filled with fear and need, with love and caring, and hope.


It centers on two people. Li’l Bit is a young girl trying to learn, hoping to be cared for, needing to make her way in a world that is so unclear.. Then there’s Uncle Peck a middle-aged, greatly unsure man who adores Li’l Bit but also wants her sexually .


The two play together, fight together. They reach out to each other even as they see their lives in very different ways, He is a provider and a terror. She is filled with need and  always must try to keep him at bay.


Vogel’s play takes great leaps. Li’l Bit is sometimes filled with ability. She knows she has all kinds of influence . But as time goes on she’s more saddened, more needy.


Uncle Peck, on the other hand, knows what he wants and goes to great heights to try and get it. He stops drinking to impresses her but that just turns Li’l Bit into a too big drinker herself.


It’s that kind on again off again action that makes “How I Learned to Drive “ a play that never stops searching for the truth through a maze of bad happenings, and need.


At the Wilbury Group, director Wendy Overly has captured all of this with power and care. In the theater’s high-cielinged wonderfully interesting playing space she has brought the play’s never quite clear situation to first-rate work.


Much of that is due to a vibrant performance by Tanya Anderson as Li’l Bit. In constant turns, she is a sweetheart of a teenager who without forcing turns herself to a needful, scared, mixed up person. At times she is a girl/woman who knows her brains, her body, her needs, her hopes. At other times she’s filled with fear. It’s a terrific performance all the way .


Jim O’Brien is both forceful and needy as Uncle Peck. In one moment, he’s a loving and helpful uncle teaching his niece how to drive an automobile. Then he is an overwhelmed middle-aged guy wanting, needing, begging for sexual favors.


In the end then, “How I Learned to Drive” is a work that was ahead of it’s time. It grasps the idea of need and hope that is sometimes crushed, sometimes never forgotten. You only need to look or listen to the news these days to know that the world can be a place where it’s hard to learn anything without looking back and knowing that what’s happened previously is still going on.


How I Learned to Drive, continues at the Wilbury Theatre group in Providence’s Oneyville section through September 30. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.