Raven’s How I Learned to Drive lacks horsepower | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Raven’s How I Learned to Drive lacks horsepower

Paula Vogel's play is a stunner, but this production hits a few wrong notes.

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Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive is a stunner. A memoir of sexual abuse in 1960s Maryland, the piece emerges as the associative leaps of a digressive memory shored up by the cool technical outlook of an instruction manual for a rite of passage as common as kissing—the rules of the road, as it were.

The narrator, Li'l Bit, is her Uncle Peck's favorite niece. He's her favorite too—the only one who seems to respect her in a family that doles out nicknames based on genitalia, declares that her credentials are on her chest, and (for the women) tends to get knocked up before finishing high school. Peck's ways are more nuanced than that, and he reveals himself as a father figure and friend to Li'l Bit as much as he is her abuser. The power of Vogel's work is to present a clear-eyed picture of an exploitative relationship that includes love but not absolution.

Raven Theatre's production, directed by Cody Estle, is faithful to the text but hits some wrong notes in the telling. This primarily manifests as Eliza Stoughton's uncertainty with how to represent a mature Li'l Bit's narration, which fades against the dialogue from her youth. Mark Ulrich also seems miscast as a scraggy, cardigan-sporting Peck. Though a literal age differential reliably evokes the predictable disgust, the tension of believable attraction that the play requires is not present.   v

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