Who’s in the driver seat of your life? That’s the metaphor at the center of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play opening at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre next Friday.
If you are Li’l Bit (Alexia Dox), the young female protagonist, you’ve been giving the steering wheel over to Uncle Peck (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann), your aunt’s husband, who for several years was in a secret sexual relationship with you. Told from the older Li’l Bit’s perspective, with frequent flashbacks to her time with Uncle Peck, “How I Learned to Drive” is, in playwright Vogel’s phrase, “Lolita from the girl’s point of view.” It is also about how we learn from those who abuse us and how we can be hurt by the people who want to help us.
“It could have been treated as a kind of tabloid format, but it’s invested with much more subtlety, humor and love,” Director Tom Whitaker says. “It’s a kind of love story, I think.”
So for those who are worried about a grim “movie of the week” tale, Whitaker assures it’s nothing of the sort. He saw the original New York production back in 1998 and came out unaccountably and tremendously moved, he says.
“It’s disarming and tender,” he says. “There’s an investment we make in these characters. We care for them, and that disarms us. And it parallels Li’l Bit’s experiences when she finds herself in over her head before she knows what’s happening.”
Like “Rabbit Hole” and other recent dramas at UCSB, Whitaker has given his students very mature themes, older characters and complex emotional paths, watching them rise to the occasion. Fernandez-Baumann is only a junior, but in last season’s “Iphigenia 2.0,” he played an old Greek man to great effect and slipped into this role just as well.
“He’s someone who has a mature sensibility and an instinctive emotional talent that belies his age,” Whitaker says.
It helps that it is a poetic play and one that that goes from ages 11 to 30 for the female role and 45 for the male. There’s also a Greek chorus that plays various roles in Li’l Bit’s memory, from grandparents to various friends she meets in college to her mother, uncle’s wife and so on.
“Imagine a production of ‘Our Town’ with six actors,” he says.
To pull this off, Whitaker uses exercises beyond the script to get the student actors to grow emotionally and pull off these roles. Speaking a character’s inner monologue out-loud helps — “That often surprises an actor, what comes out,” he says — as do research and the students’ own backgrounds.
And that ties into a larger sense of what students will be going through in their academic lives, discovering their identity and being politicized, all those heady moments and emotions of life away from home.
“Though (Li’l Bit’s) circumstances are particular,” he says, “the general sense of working through identity issues, working through crisis, as human beings we go through establishing an identity in our late teens … but (Li’l Bit’s) process of going through and asking, ‘Who am I? What do I need to assimilate and come to terms with so I can move forward?’ That’s a main part of the undergraduate experience.”
To link the undergrad experience back to the acting one, Whitaker points to an interview with Vogel in which she was asked if the play was autobiographical: “What happens in ‘Drive’ isn’t about my life,” she said, “but everybody has their own back roads.”
‘HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE’
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5-6 and 9-13, 2 p.m. Nov. 6-7 and 13
Where: UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre
Cost: $17 general, $13 students, seniors and UCSB faculty/staff
Information: (805) 893-7221, www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu