Pacific Theatre’s Fall Production Challenges and Enchants
Trigger warning: How I Learned to Drive implies and portrays instances of sexual assault and pedophilia. Discretion is advised for anyone who is sensitive to these topics.
In the age of flash judgements and cancel culture, conversation about the intricacies of behavior is becoming a rarity, especially in contemporary entertainment. In an effort to mend this disparity, Pacific Theatre presents their fall production How I Learned to Drive, an entertaining production that brings light to difficult conversations.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the once-idyllic Maryland countryside, How I Learned to Drive skips between memories and flashpoints in the life of the young protagonist, Li’l Bit. Between delivering reminiscent monologues and evoking chilling flashback scenes, Li’l Bit weaves the tale of her coming-of-age and the continuous abuse she endured at the hands of her Uncle Peck, who teaches her how to drive. Haunted, soothed, and at times burdened by the ghosts of her past, Li’l Bit bares and battles the truth of her relationship with her young adult life.
While Peck’s abuse of Li’l Bit is undoubtedly insidious and condemnable, Pacific Theatre director Matthew Zrebski dares the audience to examine both abusers and abused with rare, tight-focused perspective.
“This play, in particular, is extremely challenging in its content,” Zrebski says. “Unlike so much of what we see in modern media, where things tend to be assessed very quickly with no nuance, this play allows us to judge some of the moments without removing elements of understanding, and compassion from the situation.”
The play subverts the Devil’s Advocate position of viewing subjects such as abuse, sexism, family dynamics, bodily autonomy, and age, and allows the audience to condemn moral wrongdoings while experiencing compassion for everyone involved. Zrebski intends to highlight this attribute of the play in Pacific’s performance.
“There is sometimes a conflation between compassion and condoning,” Zrebski explains. “We’re not condoning the behavior— it’s criminal. But, it is still possible to connect with common humanity and reflect on the complexities of the human condition.”
In terms of genre, the production approaches significant subject matter in unexpected ways. A multi-genre production, How I Learned to Drive provokes the audience to consider the duality of tragic circumstances and dares critical observers to overturn their understanding of plays as fixed-genre and predictable.
“It’s been exciting to dive into the oscillating tone of the piece,” recalls Zrebski. “Is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? Is it absurd? It is, in fact, all of those things. We’ve done that by looking at it as a memory play. I call it a ghost play. To me, it’s a kind of haunting.”
Indeed, the staging, tone, and pace of the play combine to sweep audiences into the haunting life of Li’l Bit, combining moments of levity with tragic seriousness in an intricate web of chilling reminiscence.
Ultimately, the salient theme becomes tragically clear at the play’s end: reconciliation. Not just between abuser and abused, or a broken family and a lost daughter, but with oneself and the way one chooses to cope with the harsh, agonizing truths of life. The challenge to any audience is to face the story of reconciliation in no rigid way, but through multiple lenses and with an open mind. — Isabelle Williams