Encore Michigan

Powerful production of ‘How I Learned To Drive’ at Open Book

Review May 29, 2023 David Kiley

TRENTON, MI–How I Learned to Drive, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by Paula Vogel, delivers a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of a deeply troubling subject matter. Tackling issues of manipulation, abuse, and the complexities of human relationships,  especially the relationships within an extended family, this emotionally charged production leaves an indelible impact on its audience.

The play centers around the complex relationship between Li’l Bit (Krista Schafer), and her uncle by-marriage, Uncle Peck, portrayed with disturbing nuance and conflict by Phil Hughes. How I Learned to Drive delves into the dark undercurrents of their bond, exploring the troubling dynamics of power, manipulation, and the blurred boundaries of love.

Vogel’s script weaves together a non-linear narrative, with scenes shifting seamlessly between the past and the present. This artistic choice adds layers of depth to the storytelling, allowing the audience to understand the emotional context behind each character’s actions. Indeed, the story ends at the beginning of the journey of abuse and manipulation of Li’l Bit and Peck. The nonlinear structure also serves as a testament to the lasting impact of traumatic experiences and the ways in which they shape an individual’s perception of the world.

Directed by Adriane Galea, the navigation of this toxic relationship is handled extremely well by Schafer and Hughes. While the story is difficult, and make one wince at times, it’s never too hard to watch unfold on the Open Book stage.

A chorus of three actors, Amelia Hefferon, Diana Turner and V Martin, step in and out of various other roles, playing family members, school mates, and more

The direction, staging, and set design of the production are somewhat minimalist, which serves the play well because different settings and locations must occupy the stage over the course of the 1:45 minute play. The star of the set design, by Eric Niece, is a modular piece built by Gordon Mosley that converts from a “car” to a bed. Subtle lighting changes, designed by Harley Miah, and minimal props, designed by Samantha Silva, contribute to the overall atmosphere of discomfort and unease. Sound design is by Frannie Shepherd-Bates. Costumes are by Cheryl Zemke.

While How I Learned to Drive tackles deeply uncomfortable subject matter, it does so with care and sensitivity. It avoids exploiting the traumatic experiences of its characters and instead offers a platform for understanding and empathy. The play prompts important conversations about consent, abuse of minors, and the lasting impact of childhood trauma, challenging the audience to confront uncomfortable truths and question societal norms.

There is a lack of closure for the characters on all that has taken place. However, this lack of clear resolution mirrors the complexity and unresolved nature of the issues it explores, leaving the audience to grapple with the questions and implications long after the final bows.

How I Learned to Drive is an emotionally charged theatrical experience. Through powerful performances, skillful storytelling, and its willingness to tackle difficult subject matter, it forces its audience to confront uncomfortable truths and examine the intricate layers of human relationships—possibly within themselves and their families. While it may not provide easy answers, it succeeds in igniting important conversations and leaving a lasting impact on all who witness its compelling narrative unfold on stage.

Week of 9/25/2023

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