Theater Review: HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Boston Center for the Arts)

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by Lynne Weiss on November 6, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of the 1998 Pulitzer-winning drama How I Learned to Drive takes its audience on a harrowing ride through the dark land of sexual abuse and incest illuminated by moments of honesty, humor, and humanity. Director Elaine Vaan Hogue keeps playwright Paula Vogel’s best-known work moving through its complex and nuanced portrayal of Li’l Bit’s (Jennifer Rohn) coming-of-age journey with her Uncle Peck (Dennis Trainor Jr) who teaches her to drive his 1956 Chevy while grooming her for sexual predation.

Jennifer Rohn and Amy Griffin

This intermission-free performance is divided into scenes through driving lessons such as “Defensive Driving” and “You and Reverse Gear,” (announced by “Greek Chorus” members Amy Griffin, Sarah Newhouse, and Tommy Vines). All three actors play a number of other roles in the background of the main action between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, including Griffin adding nasty humor as Big Poppa; Newhouse dispensing motherly advice and warnings (sometimes useful, often not, but generally ignored); and Vines as Li’l Bit’s grandmother whose depressing sexual experiences offer Li’l Bit insight into the life she does not want to have.

Dennis Trainor Jr and Jennifer Rohn

The seven-years-long journey, set mostly in the 1960s, does not proceed smoothly. Starts, stops, and reversals reflect the process of memory and the difficulty of acknowledging the painful history of exploitation and betrayal. They also keep the audience in suspense as to the outcome of an increasingly tense and fraught relationship. We come away aware of the ways Uncle Peck helped Li’l Bit, not just teaching her to drive, but encouraging her to pursue college and escape a horrible family situation, as well as the ways in which Li’l Bit aided him in his efforts to overcome his alcoholism and in his struggles with his own trauma and guilt.

Jennifer Rohn, Sarah Newhouse, and Tommy Vines

Both Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are portrayed with courage, compassion, and complexity. Both parties, along with other family members, are ultimately damaged by the relationship, and yet we see Li’l Bit not as a victim but as a girl growing into womanhood who learns to exercise her own agency. Yet we are left with no doubt regarding who bears the greatest responsibility for the abuse.

Jennifer Rohn with Amy Griffin, Dennis Trainor Jr, Sarah Newhouse, Tommy Vines

Vogel is the second American playwright (after August Wilson) to be included in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s American Bards series. In addition to the Pulitzer, How I Learned to Drive won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Revival (see S&C’s review) and was included in The New York Times 2018 listing of “The Twenty-Five Best Plays Since Angels in America.” It’s a play that demands to be seen in the era of increased awareness of the ways in which women, children, and vulnerable populations are often coerced into sexual situations, but at the same time, offers a recognition of the humanity of those driven to exploit. The creative team includes Marcella Barbeau (Lights), Mackenzie Adamick (Sound), and Marissa Wolf (Costumes). Due to unforeseen technical problems, Baron E. Pugh’s set design was altered for the November 5 performance.

Dennis Trainor Jr and Jennifer Rohn

photos by Nile Scott Studios

How I Learned to Drive
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston
for tickets ($20-$59.50), call

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