The Topanga Actors Company’s (TAC ) production of How I Learned to Drive was decades in the making. Since seeing the original production of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-prize winning drama in 1997, director Judith Hendra aspired to bring this provocative tale of survival to the stage herself. When she and Paula LaBrot launched the TAC in 2015, her goal was in sight. Finally, in TAC’s fourth season, the moment was right.
As Hendra noted at the start of the show, Vogel thought audiences are at their best when they “feel uncomfortable” together. Vogel said, “This is the gift of theater and of writing; a transubstantiation of pain and secrecy into light, into community, into understanding if not acceptance.” As Hendra stated in the program, Vogel reminds us emotional issues are grey, not black and white.
How I Learned to Drive dives head first into that grey area with an unflinching portrayal of the trauma experienced by Li’l Bit. As a grown woman, Li’l Bit reflects on the sexual abuse she experienced at the hand of her aunt’s husband, Peck, throughout her adolescence.
“It’s 1969. And I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all,” Li’l Bit explains as the play opens. “In short, I am seventeen years old, parking off a dark lane with a married man on an early summer night.”
Through her shrewd use of non-chronological storytelling, Vogel builds sympathy for Peck only to have it challenged by revealing moments that upend the former. The audience is steered through a vast array of emotions before the painful reality of Li’l Bit and Peck’s relationship comes into stark focus.
A greek chorus of several other players portray Li’l Bit’s emotionally unsupportive family members and peers. Through surprisingly humorous exchanges with Li’l Bit, they explore the themes of victim blaming and systemic double standards faced by women.
Given the provocative nature of How I Learned to Drive, Vogel never expected the play to be produced, let alone to become a great commercial success. While the production stirred some controversy—mostly, Vogel notes, from people who never saw the play—it was well-received by critics and survivors of sexual abuse. The play was lauded for its nuanced approach, and now, over two decades later, it feels wholly aligned with the zeitgeist of our current moment.
This tension was palpable as cast and audience alike were suffused in vivid lighting, as the TAC immersed us in Li’l Bit’s harrowing coming-of-age journey. In her TAC debut, Elizabeth Herron transformed into each version of Li’l Bit, capturing her vulnerability and zeal in equal measure.
Stephen Hoye, as Uncle Peck, had an undeniable charisma, making his brazen manipulations of Herron’s Li’l Bit all the more convincing. Hoye and Herron’s potent chemistry reinforced Vogel’s words, driving home the empathy and anguish at the heart of her story.
The chorus members, played by Bill Pierce, Allison Davies, and Linda Molnar, brought a welcome dose of humor to the proceedings. With impish charm, Pierce moved seamlessly between his role as Li’l Bit’s lewd grandfather and the teenage boy—with a persistently breaking voice—who eagerly pursues her. Allison Davies and Linda Molnar wore many hats with skill, most notably as Li’l Bit’s overbearing mother and intrusive grandmother, respectively. Davies’ riotous delivery of “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” produced fits of laughter from the audience.
The TAC’s unique approach to staged readings encapsulated these performances. While the actors’ had their scripts in hand for reference, the staging was intimate and fully-realized. It didn’t take long to overlook the scripts, as the actors mostly treated them as extensions of themselves as they moved through the space. Herron and Hoye would subtly set them aside for key moments, so the emotional impact was never lost.
Both Hendra’s and the cast’s passion for Vogel’s work was fully felt through this compelling production. “The further we got into rehearsals the more we appreciated Vogel’s brilliant handling of this very challenging material,” Hendra said. “Just look at the way she juxtaposes scenes… just as you are most sorry for Peck, Vogel confronts you with reality and then cuts out with an elegy.”n
For thirty years, Vogel taught playwriting at Brown University and chief among her students was playwright Jennifer Haley. In 2017, Pierce, Hoye, and Molnar performed in the TAC’s production of Haley’s sci-fi crime drama, The Nether.
SAVE THE DATE
Up next, the TAC will perform Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake on June 9th and produce Topanga’s first Ten-Minute Play Festival this coming fall.