The OSU Department of Theatre is driven by a vision for the community as it presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive,” by Paula Vogel, Feb. 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 25 at 2:30 p.m. in the Vivia Locke Theatre at the Seretean Center for the Performing Arts. For this production, the theatre department has collaborated with Payne County Youth Services to provide support for the youth in the community.
“How I Learned to Drive” premiered in 1997 and quickly earned critical acclaim as well as many awards. By 1998, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was the most produced play in the U.S. that same year. On its 20th anniversary, OSU Theatre presents a revival at an uncanny time. The themes seem more relevant today, especially in light of the “Me Too” Movement. “Drive” presents a compelling picture—often with disarming humor—of an inappropriate relationship between the teenaged Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck. Through its provocative subject matter, the play introduces one victim’s journey to healing and forgiveness.
OSU Theatre invited Dallas Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Raphael Parry to guest direct this New York-quality production. He aims to stage the play with an adherence to the author’s original intent. “Drive” invites audiences to reconsider who the real villains and advocates are in our own lives.
“There are no demons in this play,” Parry said. “It’s real. It’s not a melodrama where this horrible creature comes along and sexually assaults this girl. It’s about how falling in love can be very dangerous. You’ll see a genuine love the uncle has for his niece and the niece has for her uncle, although yes, the love is unquestionably distorted and tragic.”
Parry brings with him decades of experience in professional theatre, first as an actor, and then as director. He has directed most of Shakespeare’s plays as well as many new and experimental works at Dallas’s Undermain Theatre. Parry provides “Drive” with his own unique directorial vision.
“The play has a Greek Chorus, and it’s essentially three actors who play multiple roles in the play,” Parry said. “When the Greek Chorus doesn’t want to see what’s going on, they hold newspapers over their faces. That’s one choice I’m making. Newspapers were a common item in the 60s and 70s, and in this case, the newspapers are a shield. They’re the blinders we put on when there’s something happening that we don’t want to see. There may be truth happening in front of the other characters on stage in their plain view, but they’re hiding behind newspapers or other facts to avoid what’s happening in front of them.”
Jacque Wieden, junior theatre major, portrays one of the three Greek Chorus characters.
“Paula Vogel didn’t want to give the audience a show; she wanted to give them the truth,” Wieden said. “Often, we would rather close our eyes to difficult things, because, if we shield our eyes, things just go away. It’s like putting the newspapers over our eyes.”
When the play first premiered, some audiences were troubled by what they saw. Because Vogel made Uncle Peck a three-dimensional human being, he was not easy to hate.
“The play is told from Li’l Bits perspective, but you will also see Uncle Peck’s point of view, which I think will be interesting for the audience,” Wieden said. “In some ways the audience will sympathize with him.”
Vogel wrote Uncle Peck to be a recognizable man from the neighborhood. According to her own character description, Peck is an “attractive man in his forties” and “should be played by an actor one might cast in the role of Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.” The theatre department agreed to bring in a professional actor for the role, Brian Sprague from Chicago.
“Paula did a wonderful job showing that Uncle Peck isn’t a mean, nasty predator,” Sprague said. “This idea of older men preying on younger women has been around in our society for at least 500 years. Moliere’s ‘School for Wives’ is literally about a middle-aged man who picks up a ward to train her—at nine years old—how to be his wife. We have ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ We want to say it’s the greatest love story of all time, but in the play Juliet says she’s not more than 13 moons. She’s a 12-year-old girl, and Romeo is 17 or 18 years old. However, we as an outside audience say ‘they’re in love.’ So this is nothing new, and I think this play is relevant because it asks us to really identify and look at what we as a society have deemed acceptable.”
Sophomore theatre major Ellie Collier, who performed in last year’s musical “Spitfire Grill,” stars in the leading role. Her portrayal of Li’l Bit is not from her personal experience, but from a collection of experiences gleaned from the memories of real survivors.
“I had some reservations when I heard about the content.” Collier said. “However, I work at Wings of Hope, and I was inspired by real victims to tell their stories. I wanted to take the things I was learning there and put it in a character that honestly portrays what some victims may go through. I want people to see a performance that will impact them. It’s something real, and it happens here, even in Stillwater. That’s why it’s important this story gets told, and it’s even more important for it to be heard.”
The entire theatre department shares Collier’s compassion for victims of abuse, and seeks ways to connect the larger community. One way is simply by producing the play.
“This play is a way for all of us to confront our emotions and deal with what we’re feeling,” said Collier. “You can go to the theater and sit in the dark where no one will be able to see you. You’re free to be present with the characters, and just be able to feel the things you need to feel without people seeing you have the emotions you’re having. It’s a safe place to simply be who you are in that moment.”
Vogel helps audiences examine the grey areas of a very difficult topic through “How I Learned to Drive,” and the production has certainly sparked conversation in the past. OSU Theatre Department Head Andrew Kimbrough is not only interested in sparking conversation, but also inspiring action in the community.
“We hope this play will encourage people to open their hearts and minds to everyone in our community,” Kimbrough said. “Our department was certainly motivated by Paula Vogel’s script, which is why we’ve collaborated with Payne County Youth Services. We hope to encourage a change in perspective in a thought-provoking way, and we hope to stimulate change in our community in a way that benefits us all.”
For this production only, the OSU Department of Theatre provides an opportunity for all Payne County community members to donate to PCYS for a discount on their theater ticket. Patrons may donate $2 cash at the door for a PCYS bracelet to show their support and receive a dollar discount for their ticket admission. Discounts are limited to one per ticket and exclude group rates. This offer is not available to online ticket sales.
“We want to raise money and awareness for Payne County Youth Services,” Kimbrough said. “I think this is a cause that’s worthwhile, and I hope members in our community see the value in it. The subject matter of ‘How I Learned to Drive’ helps us realize that there are vulnerable young people all around us. I guarantee there won’t be a dull moment.”
Tickets for “How I Learned to Drive” are on sale now, and they are selling quickly. To reserve your tickets, call (405)744-6094 or purchase your tickets online at theatre.okstate.edu or at the Theatre Box Office in 121 Seretean Center for the Performing Arts.
For more information about “How I Learned to Drive” or the OSU Department of Theatre, call (405)744-6094 or visit theatre.okstate.edu.