‘How I Learned to Drive’ at NHCC
Community college presents Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning, thought-provoking play
Some plays provide light entertainment for an easy evening out, and others delve into serious subjects that provoke conversation and leave the audience deeply thoughtful.
Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” falls into the latter category.
The play, which opens at North Hennepin Community College Wednesday, Dec. 5, follows the story of a now-grown woman who experienced sexual abuse by her uncle while he taught her to drive.
Told as a memory from the vantage point of “Lil Bit,” one of the two main characters, the piece alternates between moments of intense tension and comic relief. It portrays Lil Bit’s complex relationship with her Uncle Peck and how she survived.
But the story isn’t a morality tale demonizing Peck.
“The characters in the play are so complex,” director Julien Phillips said. “We would like to make people victims and villains. There’s never any good excuse for an adult abusing a child, but I do also know that this is complex… As human beings we convince ourselves that things we do are OK because we have certain reasons for doing them.”
Zach Miller of St. Louis Park, who plays Uncle Peck, describes his character as having “many levels.”
“I think the biggest challenge was probably not making him a villain,” Miller said. He explained that for the play to work the audience must feel some level of sympathy for Peck.
Lil Bit is also a multifaceted character, a fact that is especially evident because the audience sees her at various points in her life from age 11 to adulthood.
“I think she is the most vibrant character I’ve ever played,” said Marci Lucht of Osseo, who will perform the part in North Hennepin’s production. “I’m lucky to play such a strong female character.”
Lil Bit’s character, coupled with Vogel’s strong writing, is what compelled Lucht to audition for the play. When she picked up the script for the first time, she read it in a single sitting.
“I couldn’t put it down,” she said.
It stuck with her, and she knew she wanted to perform in the show.
The piece seems to have a way of sinking in and staying with those who encounter it.
That’s what drove Phillips, a theater instructor at the college, to choose to produce the play. Phillips saw it once and couldn’t forget it.
“When I saw this production, it bothered me,” she said. “And I’m usually pretty unflappable about this stuff… It got to me, and it made me question parts of us as human beings… It takes you back to some really basic questions about human relationships.”
With many sex scandals in the news recently, the time seemed appropriate to tackle the taboo subject.
Pillips said the play is for mature viewers, not children, but she hopes the community will come experience what she expects to be “a rich dramatic experience.”
Despite the difficult subject, playgoers won’t see anything that wouldn’t appear on prime-time television, she said.
“I just would really like to encourage people to come, even though it might seem like serious material,” Phillips said.
Miller and Lucht echoed her sentiments.
“I don’t want people to be afraid of it,” Miller said.
“It’s very confrontational in a safe way,” Lucht said.
The three agreed that only by dealing with tough subjects can theater reach its full potential to play an important role in society.
“Being able to actually educate or shed light on a subject is powerful,” Lucht said.
“Art is supposed to not just mirror culture, but it’s also supposed to provoke,” Phillips said. “And it’s supposed to create things that help us see it differently. … So I really do hope this does some provoking.”
Phillips thinks theatergoers will be entertained. But most of all, she wants them to think.
“If it bothers them I want them to look for why that might be so,” she said. “If it doesn’t bother them I maybe want them to look for why that might be so. But mostly I would like for people to go out talking about this a little bit, thinking about it a little bit.”
If You Go
What: “How I learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel.
When: 2 p.m. Dec. 5; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6-8; and 2 p.m. Dec. 9.
Where: Fine Arts Center at North Hennepin Community College, 7411 85th Ave. N., Brooklyn Park.
Cost: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, $5 for matinees.