How I Learned to Drive Shines a Light on Important Issues

Patrick Hostert

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Pedophilia is a difficult subject to discuss. In order to have a conversation about shocking situations it is sometimes necessary to use allegories. For example, some theorize the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” was written in the middle ages to serve as a platform to discuss sexual assault indirectly during a time that had little to no vocabulary to discuss the subject: a young girl, on her own, and a big bad wolf who disguises himself as a friendly family member. Now you’re thinking how did I NOT see that?

 The Western Illinois University Theater Department used an allegory as well, that of driving to discuss the truly uncomfortable but critical subject matter of pedophilic incest. I’ve never had so many conflicting and twisted emotions as I did after watching “How I Learned to Drive.” I will say the cast did an incredible job, as they were able to make me squirm in my seat. The characters lived full lives for the hour and 40 minutes that they were on the stage, and I felt incredible empathy for “Li’l Bit.” It’s difficult to review this because it was the furthest thing from pleasant to watch, but it was captivating and moving and for that I’d rate it a well-performed piece.

 “How I Learned to Drive” followed the story of Li’l Bit, a young girl who is frustrated with her family’s vulgarity. For example, her grandfather often references her quick development into a young woman in vulgar terms and mocks her goal of going to college. When this visibly upsets her, Li’l Bit’s mother ushers her toward her uncle Peck, an uncle by marriage. Unfortunately, Uncle Peck has pedophilic behavior and he uses the time he has with her and when he is teaching her to drive to take advantage of Li’l Bit.

 The play used the analogy of learning to drive and driving with sexuality, sexual abuse and pedophilia. There was a stoplight hanging above the stage was used to signal Li’l Bit’s feeling towards each situation. When her uncle ever made advances, like when he was taking pictures of her as an 11-year-old in a nightgown, or another time in the car when he attempted to undo her bra, the stoplight would turn red. If she was nervous, the light would show yellow.

 Thankfully, there was some comedy in the play as well. Ashley Reyburn played Li’l Bit’s mother, who had several soliloquys, one about how best to approach drinking. Her formal, polite tone and word choice was a humorous juxtaposition to her discussing what to do in the event of over-consumption of alcohol, the remedy being to insert the middle and forefinger into the throat to relieve the stomach of its contents, or something like that.

 The play exposed the complicated relationships and feelings that the victims and perpetrators of pedophilia or incest can have. Uncle Peck was Li’l Bit’s confidant, the one member of her family who was mature and encouraged her intellectual curiosity. He didn’t mock her interest in history. But, he was putting her in very uncomfortable situations. For much of the play she was between the ages of 11 and 17.

 The play mostly jumped around and didn’t have a strictly chronological sequence of scenes. In one scene, Li’l Bit was older, in her 30s, looking back at her youth and felt some pity for her uncle. She wondered out loud who abused him as a child. Though there is little empirical evidence for the “cycle of child sexual abuse,” some psychological papers have found that a small minority of males are more at risk if abused as a child. There is little to no evidence for correlation with female victims.

 If you get a chance to watch this play in the future, I recommend it only because it does a very good job of forcing empathy and understanding with victims of child sexual abuse. The actors at Western did a fantastic job of bringing these characters to life, so much that the suspension of disbelief was no toil at all. It was hard not to feel that you really knew Li’l Bit.

 All plays at Western are free for students. The next play is on the mainstage in Hainline Theatre. The title is “Wild Party,” a musical that will be performed April 13 through 16 at 7:30, and April 17 at 2:00. For tickets, go to the box office in Brown Hall between 10:00 and 4:30 on weekdays, or call (309) 298-2900.

 An overview of the play on the theater Facebook page is as follows: “A steamy prohibition tale steamrolling and roaring its way across the stage, Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party was an off-broadway gem that garnered an array of industry accolades, including Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, & Obie awards. Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name, this darkly brilliant show features one of the most exciting, pulse-racing scores ever written.

 “Lovers Queenie and Burrs decide to throw the party to end all parties in their Manhattan apartment. After the colorful arrival of a slew of guests living life on the edge, Queenie’s wandering eyes land on a striking man named Black. As the decadence is reaching a climax, so is Burrs’ jealousy which erupts and sends him into a violent rage. Gun in hand and inhibitions abandoned Burrs turns on Queenie and Black. The gun gets fired, but who’s been shot?”