Like many Rhode Islanders, I first saw Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive 20 years ago at Trinity Rep. How fitting it is, then, to celebrate this groundbreaking production with The Wilbury Theatre Group, a theater known for producing provocative and thought-provoking theater.
Let’s begin with the set. Walking in, Monica Shinn’s set welcomes you with an open road. It is simple and quite lovely. In fact, with Andy Russ’ lighting design, at one point I audibly gasped at its beauty. Director Wendy Overly has brought together five immensely talented performers for this piece. First off is Tanya Anderson Martin, who plays Li’l Bit, the main character who is a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her Uncle Peck (Jim O’Brien). Anderson takes the audience on this journey that catapults us throughout the timeline of abuse with such a powerful performance. O’Brien at times is so, for lack of a better phrase, disgustingly creepy, that even when his back is to you, your stomach is a bit knotted up. His performance is incredible. There is a Greek chorus rounding out this production, the male chorus played by Scott Levine, the teenage chorus played by Kelly Robertson, and the female chorus played by Lee Rush. All three were making their Wilbury debut, but it surely won’t be their last. Levine’s portrayal of the cruel and controlling grandfather, to even the concerned waiter, was remarkable. Robertson, who made you feel so bad for the grandmother, and provided some much needed comic relief, was simply perfect. Lee Rush’s performance was sublime. If I could watch her monologue about drinking over and over again, I would. She took command of those roles, and I could not wait for her character to come back and have more to say.
I know I’m late to the party, but this was my first time taking in theater at Wilbury. If this production is any indication of what’s in store for this season, we all have an amazing year of theater to look forward to! That said, this isn’t an easy show. The topic is not a comfortable one, and at times the actors make you feel empathy for even the worst of people on stage.
So how does this play hold up over 20 years? When I first saw it, I was young, too young to order any type of mixed drink, never mind one requiring a “bread basket and generous portions of butter.” This play still makes me uncomfortable, as it should. When you go to see How I Learned to Drive you’re going to see powerful theater that will make you think of control, power, manipulation. It’s hard not to think of current events when reflecting on this show, which is all the sadder as it was written two decades ago, and Li’l Bit’s abuse is endured in the 1960s. It makes the story devastatingly and infuriatingly timeless. This is a story we’ve seen far too many times, and one which it seems we will continually see. The production will have talk back sessions with the cast Thursday-Saturday, with Providence’s Day One on hand to facilitate the talk-backs after the Sunday matinees (Day One is a sexual assault and trauma center in Providence that offers a 24-hour helpline, advocacy for survivors, and counseling). If ever there was a production that craved time to sit and reflect, The Wilbury Theater Group’s How I Learned to Drive is it.
How I Learned to Drive is playing at The WIlbury Theatre Group until September 30. Tickets are going fast and have a few sold out dates already! Go to thewilburygroup.org for tickets.