In the dark space of the Large Studio at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre, a female, computer-automated voice recited driving directions. The combination of the monotonous, impersonal voice-over and the play’s trigger warning (“How I Learned to Drive is a dark comedy that deals with themes of pedophilia, molestation, and sexual assault. The play contains some scenes that can be really hard to take!”) set the stage for a skillful but quite unnerving portrayal of the dysfunctional and complicated coming-of-age of a young girl involved in an inappropriate relationship with her uncle.
With a non-chronological plot, How I Learned to Drive depicted the life of Li’l Bit, played by Allegra Breedlove SC ’15, and her loss of innocence through a series of flashbacks to childhood memories. Li’l Bit first took the stage as an adult modestly dressed in a green dress, unbuttoned blue cashmere sweater, and ballet flats to discuss how she learned to drive herself to where she is today.
Growing up with a far-from-normal extended family in rural Maryland during the 1960s, Li’l Bit was raised by her misunderstood, twisted Uncle Peck (Alex Cromidas PZ ’15); her negligent, oblivious mother (Ellen Pelos SC ’16); her ignorant, sexist grandfather (Dan Skubi PO ’14); and her submissive, vulgar grandmother (Becki Yukman PO ’16). Misogyny and inappropriate sexuality surrounded Li’l Bit in all parts of her life as Uncle Peck took advantage of her naïveté under the guise of comfort. He used driving lessons as an excuse to be alone with her, manipulating her through molestation from the time she was 11 years old.
Two black blocks were effectively staged to represent the Buick Riviera that served as the location of the illicit affair between uncle and niece. Breedlove and Cromidas used stiff body language and unbroken eye contact with the audience to depict the uncomfortable sexual tension between their characters. In a flashback to Li’l Bit at age 17, she appeared to exert some control over her uncle, telling him what he could and could not do with her sexually based on how “good” or “bad” he had been that week. In his portrayal of Uncle Peck, Cromidas used a childish, pathetic voice to explain how he had been good because he had not had a drink all week, an impressive feat for a recovering alcoholic. As a small reward, Li’l Bit allowed Uncle Peck to undo her bra. In the portrayal, however, the two characters sat side by side and acted their parts upon the empty space in between their chairs and the audience. Instead of reaching out to touch Li’l Bit, Uncle Peck groped at the air while Li’l Bit stared out at the viewers with discomfort. This use of space placed the audience firmly within the play’s affair, forcing them to confront the difficult subject matter.
A number of scenes throughout the play used Li’l Bit’s large breast size to evince the negative influences and experiences she underwent starting in adolescence. Those around her judged her and looked down on her for something out of her control. In high school, other students noticed her not for her intelligence, but for her “foam rubber” breasts that they constantly discussed and “accidentally” grabbed. Even at the dinner table with all of her family present, the topic of conversation fell to her breasts, giving the audience insight into the inappropriateness of Li’l Bit’s upbringing. As Li’l Bit’s grandparents, Skubi and Yukman were convincingly despicable as they laughed and made loud, lewd comments about their granddaughter’s chest. Pelos, Li’l Bit’s mother, played a character who was the complete opposite of those of Skubi and Yukman, although equally terrible. Throughout the conversation, she simply sat and watched, only speaking up to comment insensitively and ironically on how great Uncle Peck is with the kids when they reach “this age” as he rushed to comfort Li’l Bit.
Pelos made her character’s stubborn defiance of her motherly duties even clearer when she memorably provided the audience with “a mother’s guide to social drinking,” one of only a few refreshing and welcome moments of laughter in a play dealing with such serious subject matter.
Despite the obvious wrongness of Uncle Peck’s actions, it was hard not to fall under his spell. This complexity made the show incredibly compelling for audience members who found themselves at times sympathetic to Uncle Peck but simultaneously disgusted by his pedophilic actions. It was the acting skill of Cromidas and Breedlove that made these contradictions believable. Cromidas spoke with a soothing, calming voice, endearing himself to the audience, while Breedlove’s innocent laughter and occasional temper tantrums encapsulated the difficulties of being a teenage girl without adequate parenting. Li’l Bit confided in her uncle because he was the only one who listened to her. His attention made her feel appreciated because she was too young and too uncared for to know better.
As the play progressed, Li’l Bit began to forgive Uncle Peck’s wrongdoings. She wondered aloud about his past and who could have violated him to make him behave in this perverse way. Uncle Peck did, in fact, teach her how to drive, a skill which made her feel liberated and in control. She proved this by rejecting his proposal of sex and marriage on her 18th birthday and effectively severing all ties to their history, holding on only to her ability to drive.
Director Laura Steinroeder SC ’13 is clearly skilled, having put together the engaging and wonderful production in just two weeks. In around 90 minutes, Steinroeder and her talented cast convincingly demonstrated how a less-than-ideal upbringing can impact characters negatively, as with Uncle Peck, or positively, as with Li’l Bit.
The play was shown by student-run troupe Bottom Line Theatre Monday, March 11 and Tuesday, March 12 at 8 p.m. Admission was free.