This weekend, the University of Maine School of Performing Arts gave its first performance of “How I Learned to Drive,” a play by Paula Vogel that will be performed in the Cyrus Pavilion Theater until Oct. 28.
“I have wanted to do this play because it is about forgiveness,” director Marcia Joy Douglas wrote in her section of the program. “We cannot move on from our personal traumas and pain until we can learn to forgive.”
The performance stars fourth-year theater student Allison Smith as Li’l Bit, Greg Scot Mihalik as Uncle Peck, third-year theater student Goldie Irvine and second-year student Michelle Green in various female roles, and fourth-year theater student Jackson McLaughlin and second-year student Andrew Silver in various male roles.
The play is often humorous, though it tackles dark issues like incest, pedophilia and misogyny. Smith captured the mixed and extreme emotions of Li’l Bit, and Mihalik was the performance’s other driving force, adequately playing the supportive and creepy Uncle Peck.
The interior of the Cyrus Pavilion Theater was decorated with large road signs and projections that indicated setting and scene titles. The set was not concrete — elements of it were moved around in darkness between scenes.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which originally premiered March 16, 1997 at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, N.Y., follows Li’l Bit from her early teenage years in rural Maryland to college, her relationship with Uncle Peck, a recovering alcoholic who has romantic feelings toward her, and the rest of her extended family.
The story is not linear, instead starting during a warm summer evening in Maryland, 1969. Serving as narrator in this scene, Li’l Bit sets the mood, and describes when she was 17 years old and parked with a married man, who the audience discovers is Uncle Peck. He undoes her blouse with one hand and asks to “kiss them,” referring to Li’l Bit’s breasts. As he starts to, Li’l Bit declares she has to leave, rejecting his advances.
Li’l Bit’s narration before the next scene explains that her family is unusual, saying, “I was 16 when I realized pedophilia did not mean people who like bicycles.”
The scene shows her during a family dinner with her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and Uncle Peck, and it gives insight to the shortcomings of her family: her grandmother is a sheltered Christian, her mother became pregnant at a young age and her grandfather is a sexist who responds to Li’l Bit’s desire for a college education by saying, “How’s Shakespeare going to help her lie down on her back in the dark?”
The incestuous relationship between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck began in 1962, when Uncle Peck and a 12-year-old Li’l Bit are driving. Li’l Bit sits on Uncle Peck’s lap to operate the steering wheel and he molests her, but she is too young to realize what is happening.
The scenes jump back and forth on the timeline, showing that Li’l Bit is alternately fascinated by and unsure of her Uncle Peck. Early on, she is appreciative of the interest he takes in her and hopes he can be a father figure. But as time elapses, she reciprocates the romantic feelings he has for her. Eventually, she examines the morality of the situation and shies away from him.
In the story’s climax, after sending Li’l Bit letters at college counting down to her 18th birthday, she meets Uncle Peck at a motel room to break off their relationship. He proposes to her, but Li’l Bit leaves and never sees him again. Unable to handle the rejection, Uncle Peck spirals back into alcoholism and slowly kills himself over the next seven years.
A common theme throughout many of the scenes is driving and the power Li’l Bit feels behind the wheel. Despite the drama Uncle Peck has caused Li’l Bit throughout her life, the end of the play sees her realizing that he helped her by teaching her to drive, which is when she feels the most free from the chaos of her family.
“How I Learned to Drive” will be performed again Oct. 25 at noon, Oct. 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 or free with a MaineCard.