How I Learned to Drive

How I Learned to Drive
Written by Paula Vogel
Characters Li'l Bit
Uncle Peck
Male Greek Chorus
Female Greek Chorus
Teenage Greek Chorus
Date premiered March 16, 1997
Place premiered Vineyard Theatre
New York City, United States
Original language English
Genre Drama

How I Learned to Drive is a play written by the American playwright Paula Vogel. The play was premiered on March 16, 1997, off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre. Vogel received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work. It was written and developed at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, with Molly Smith as artistic director.

The story follows the strained, sexual relationship between Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck, from her adolescence through her teenage years into college and beyond. Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation.

Plot synopsis

The play tells the story of a woman nicknamed Li'l Bit as she comes to terms with her sexually abusive relationship with her Uncle Peck throughout her adolescence. Aside from Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck, a Greek Chorus of three is on hand to play all of the other characters in their lives. The script is a memory play told largely out of chronological order, with the first scene taking place in 1969 in a "parking lot outlooking Rural Maryland". Li'l Bit is seventeen years old and sitting in her Uncle Peck's car. Peck uses this opportunity to unhook her brassiere through her shirt, an act that Li'l Bit finds uncomfortable. Li'l Bit mentions how she is graduating high school and going to a "fancy college" in the fall, while Uncle Peck continues to admire her body.

Li'l Bit breaks from this scene to give an oral history on her immediate family. She explains that her family's penchant for handing out nicknames based on genitalia is why she was branded with the alias Li'l Bit for life. This includes her alcoholic mother, the "titless wonder", her misogynistic grandfather "Big Papa", her submissive grandmother, and her young Cousin BB (Blue Balls). A typical family dinner in 1969 has Li'l Bit's family (played by the three Greek Chorus members) cracking jokes about how "well endowed" she is. Here, the audience is shown that Peck is the only family member who supports Li'l Bit's dreams of going to school. When a frustrated Li'l Bit leaves the dinner after Grandfather goes too far with his insults, Peck's wife Mary (Li'l Bit's maternal aunt) asks him to comfort her, showing that she is ignorant of his abuse.

After the dinner, Li'l Bit reveals that she would be lose her scholarship and be expelled from college because of a drinking problem. She recalls how she would spend most of that year driving on highways, marveling at how well Peck had taught her to drive. She then has a memory of 1968, where Uncle Peck takes her to a fancy Eastern Shore restaurant as a reward for passing her driver's test on the first try. Peck slyly orders oysters and martinis for Li'l Bit to consume, while the girl's mother appears to give less than stellar advice on drinking alcohol. As the scene progresses, both Li'l Bit and her mother become increasingly drunk on martinis, showcasing how unhelpful the mother was at giving proper advice to her child. Peck carries the drunk Li'l Bit to his car and lays her down, and propositions her. He immediately backs off when Li'l Bit drunkenly cries for him not to touch her. He says he will wait for her to say it's OK.

The Teenage Greek Chorus member briefly takes over to introduce a memory that is not Li'l Bit's. In a monologue, Uncle Peck gives the unseen Cousin BB a fishing lesson, where it is strongly implied that he uses this as a cover to molest the boy the same way he used driving to abuse Li'l Bit. Li'l Bit takes control once again to recount a conversation she had with her mother and grandmother about sex. Mother tries to be helpful in explaining topics such as orgasms and saying no, while Grandmother wails that Li'l Bit is too young to know about sex and uses scare tactics to keep her from doing it until she is married. The adult Li'l Bit breaks the memory to explain that she would go on to have a one night stand with a seventeen year old boy while she was over twenty one, making her wonder if that makes her just like Uncle Peck. She then returns to the memory, which had converted into an argument between Mother and the Grandparents. Unable to deal with that memory again, Li'l Bit changes the memory (as part of the driving metaphor, she likens this to changing stations on the radio) to when Uncle Peck first taught her how to start up a car. In a scene of genuine concern beyond her body, Peck gives reasonable advice on how to be safe on the road, further confusing Li'l Bit as to why he could abuse her while still being helpful.

The next scene is a series of vignettes on Li'l Bit's school days in 1966, where she faced ridicule and even sexual harassment from the other students on account of her large breasts. She remembers a boy asking her to dance at a school sock hop, but Li'l Bit refuses, implying that she is wary of men from her experiences.

The scenes shifts to 1965, where Uncle Peck takes provocative photos of Li'l Bit in the style of 1950's pin up girls. During this uncomfortable moment for Li'l Bit, Aunt Mary takes the stage to defend her husband's actions to the audience. She claims that he is a good man, and that it is all Li'l Bit's fault for leading him on. She believes that her marriage can be saved the second her niece goes off to college.

On Christmas 1964, Thirteen year old Li'l Bit helps Uncle Peck wash the dishes. It is there that Peck gets the idea to take Li'l Bit out driving once a week in order to continue molesting her. Li'l Bit agrees to this arrangement, despite her confusion towards Peck's relationship with her.

The scene flashes forward to 1969, where Li'l Bit is experiencing her freshman year in college. The Greek Chorus lists a series of letters and gifts that Peck sends her throughout her first semester, with each note counting down how many days are left until her eighteenth birthday. Startled by how unhinged her uncle has become, Li'l Bit arranges a meeting in a Philadelphia hotel room on December 10th, 1969. Li'l Bit yells at Uncle Peck for becoming so possessive, while he insists that his niece is the love of his life. Li'l Bit reveals that the years of trauma from Peck has finally caught up with her, leading to her not focusing in school and failing her courses. After he gets down and proposes to Li'l Bit, vowing to divorce Aunt Mary, Li'l Bit turns him down and cuts him out of her life for good. She never sees Peck again after she leaves the hotel room.

Li'l Bit returns to the present to explain what became of Peck after she left: He turned to alcohol after years of sobriety, leading to the loss of his job, his marriage, and his driver's license. He would go on to die after drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs in his basement. Li'l Bit takes this time to reflect on why her uncle molested her, questioning if someone did it to him when he was her age.

Li'l Bit has one more memory to share: the Summer of 1962. An 11-year-old Li'l Bit fights with her mother about going out driving with Uncle Peck. Mother is wary of him, but finally relents, telling Li'l Bit that she holds her responsible for any misdeeds. In the following scene, Li'l Bit sits in the car with Uncle Peck, only she doesn't speak her lines out loud. The Teenage Greek Chorus, acting as young L'il Bit, does so. Peck molests his niece for the first time.

The script then returns to the present. Li'l Bit reflects on how she is ready to move on with her life, and that despite everything she has been through, she can thank her Uncle Peck for one thing: The freedom she feels when she drives. The final scene has Li'l Bit alone in her car, and as she adjusts her rear view mirror, she notices Uncle Peck in the back. After smiling at him, she steps on the gas pedal and drives away, finally leaving Peck in the past as she drives off to a new chapter of her life.


How I Learned to Drive premiered Off-Broadway in a production by the Vineyard Theatre (Douglas Aibel, Artistic Director; Jon Nakagawa, Managing Director) on May 6, 1997 and closed on April 19, 1998 at the Century Center For The Performing Arts. The play was directed by Mark Brokaw, set design was by Narelle Sissons, costume design was by Jess Goldstein, lighting design was by Mark McCullough, and the original sound design was by David van Tieghem. The cast was as follows:[1] The play had been presented by the Vineyard Theatre in February to April 1997, featuring Johanna Day and David Morse.[2]

A 1997/98 season production at Center Stage in Baltimore was directed by Barry Edelstein.

A 1998/99 season production at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. was directed by Molly Smith.

A 1999 production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles featured Molly Ringwald and Brian Kerwin.

In 2006 the play was produced by the T. Schreiber Studio and Theater in New York City. This critically acclaimed production was directed by Terry Schreiber and received 10 New York Innovative Theatre (NYIT) Award nominations. Trey Gibbons won the NYIT Award for Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role for his performance in this production.

L.A. Theatre Works has produced an audio performance of the play, starring Glenne Headly, Randall Arney, Joy Gregory, Paul Mercier, and Rondi Reed. Published on CD, ISBN 1-58081-188-4.

In 2012 Second Stage Theatre produced the first professional production of the play in New York City since its premiere in 1997. The work was directed by Kate Whoriskey and stars Norbert Leo Butz as Uncle Peck and Elizabeth Reaser as Li'l Bit. The production opened February 13, 2012 and was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, saying "It is a performance that captures Ms. Vogel's remarkable, clear-eyed empathy in portraying the incalculable damage done by damaged people".[3]

In 2012 University of Vermont's Department of Theatre produced the play to be viewed and workshoped with Ms. Vogel. Natalie Battistone and Colby Morgan played the lead roles. The production was directed by Department of Theatre Chair Gregory Ramos.

In 2015, the play received its first professional London revival at Southwark Playhouse, starring Olivia Poulet as Li'l Bit and William Ellis as Peck, directed by Jack Sain, produced by D.E.M. Productions for Fools & Kings Theatre, with set & costume design by Katharine Heath, lighting design by Ziggy Jacobs, and composition and sound design by Nathan Klein.[4]

The play was produced in Spanish at the Teatro auditorio de Miraflores in Lima, Peru, in 2013, with Li'l Bit renamed Rayita and played by Leticia Poirier and Uncle Peck renamed tío Pico and played by Marcelo Rivera.[5] Ebelin Ortiz directed.[5]

Awards and nominations



  1. How I Learned to Drive, accessed October 27, 2016
  2. How I Learned to Drive, accessed October 27, 2016
  3. Ben Brantley (February 14, 2012). "Going Along For the Ride With Uncle". New York Times.
  4. Theo Bosanquet (12 January 2015). "Olivia Poulet stars in How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse". Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  5. 1 2 Velarde, Sergio (14 July 2013). "Crítica: CÓMO APRENDÍ A MANEJAR". El Oficio Crítico (in Spanish). Retrieved 11 February 2016.
  6. Lortel listing

External links

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