Although it touches on the theme of incest, "How I Learned to Drive" is a story about growing up - and even about love. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, opening tonight, traces the relationship between a girl named Li'l Bit and her uncle in flashback. Many of their meetings occur as Uncle Peck teaches his niece how to drive.
“Telling the story is for her a catharsis and a cleansing,” said John Ficker, who is directing the show for Prodigal Sun Productions. “In the end, it’s a story about her transcending the relationship.”
When he first got the call asking him to direct playwright Paula Vogel’s play, Ficker was both grateful and uneasy.
“I knew very little about the play,” he said. “I knew that there was something about child molestation in there, and I really wasn’t interested. I thought, ‘That is such a sensitive topic, and I don’t know that I want to spend energy diving in there.’ ”
Then he read the play. “The script handles it in a beautiful manner,” he said. “Li’l Bit is able to grow through and beyond what happened. That made it a much more attractive story to tell. Those are the kinds of stories that are much more fun to tell.
“My fear was that this was going to be a story that was going to be graphic, that was going to require us to live through those scenes where something is happening to someone against their will.”
In fact, there is very little force in the relationship. Scenes where the uncle’s behavior crosses the line tend to feel more romantic.
“It looks a lot like a love scene you’d see in any other play,” Ficker said. “There is some kissing. It’s been an interesting thing to work on. As you are walking through this process, you think that they genuinely love each other.”
And it’s been a challenge for both director and actors — the cast of five includes a three-member Greek chorus that plays the rest of the roles in the story — to get in touch with the full spectrum of the characters’ emotions.
“In a project like this, the actors sometimes really want to judge or sell out their characters,” he said. “Here’s a guy who is a pedophile. As an actor, you could say, ‘Gross,’ and walk away, but if you do that, the audience never gets a chance to understand the humanity of individual.”
The story fits with Prodigal Sun’s penchant for plays with a message.
“We like to do plays that are more thought-provoking,” said Elizabeth Lord, the company’s vice president. “Plays must be entertaining — otherwise, people wouldn’t sit through them — but there’s no reason why they can’t also be informative or educational.”