“How I Learned to Drive” fails to rev engines

How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel

Dir. Joanne Farrell

Champlain College

Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive,” premiered last Wednesday at the Champlain Alumni Auditorium.

Directed by Joanne Farrell, a former teacher of dramatic texts at the University of Vermont, the play was put on primarily by Champlain College students, the exceptions being Kevin Christopher (Uncle Peck), Janice Gohn Webster (L’il Bit) and Alexandra Sevakian, who provides the voice that gives intermittent driving instructions via a speaker throughout the play.

Vogel’s play uses a variety of tools – including breaking the fourth wall and pictures of pin-up girls – to convey the emotions of her characters. She finds new ways to slip from scene to scene, making use of the driving instructions, and she often has characters simply announce what scene is about to occur.

Joanne Farrell wanted to direct this play because she used to teach it at UVM and students always seemed to respond to it, she said.

“I asked students: ‘Is this something you would like to do?’ And they said yes,” she said.

The actors in this play have had a little under three weeks to rehearse, and considering many of them have very little training, this is no small feat.

“I’m really impressed. I think it’s a testament to their responsibility and commitment,” she said.

“How I Learned to Drive,” although humorous, is no piece of light drama. It addresses themes of longing, molestation and manipulation.

“It is controversial in that L’il Bit is asking us to witness or reÂview her life and that can make people uncomfortable,” Farrell said.

The abduction and murder of Brooke Bennett this past summer may make locals even more uncomfortable, as the subjects the play wrestles with strike close to home.

“‘It takes a village to molest a child’ – Paula Vogel said that, it makes me wonder if I’m someÂhow complicit with what happened to Brooke and it reminds me that we can’t be looking for someone to blame, because it’s never one person’s fault,” Farrell said.

Unfortunately, this production of “How I Learned to Drive” didn’t seem so much as a voice for these feelings of guilt, anger and love that are present in Vogel’s beautiful play, but rather an obstacle the text had to overcome before the true meaning and complexity could shine through.

It is not that the actors lacked talent; true, they lacked training, but on occasion one could see potential shining through during a joke or an address to the audience.

What they needed was simply further preparation for opening night. Their lack of readiness was evident in moments of forgotten words and the time it took most of the characters to adjust to their faux-Southern accents.

Still, Vogel’s playwriting talents manage to come through, especially during the second half of the show.

Despite stumbling over words and awkward gestures representing “fondling.” The audience can still feel the tension between L’il Bit and Uncle Peck and hopes with true emotion that she’ll walk unscathed out of that hotel room, that car, that basement.

In spite of a few inspired moments on the part of Christopher and Webster, Champlain College’s production of “How I Learned to Drive” fails to quite make it home.