Rehearsals for How I Learned to Drive begin tonight and my car is in the shop. It should be ready in just enough time for me to drive straight from the garage to rehearsal. How I Learned to Drive takes an accepted rite of passage – learning to drive – and uses that experience to anchor a coming of age story that centers on an incestuous relationship between Li’l Bit and her uncle, Peck. The play frames that relationship along a continuum from a dalliance between a young woman and an older married man to a pedophile’s assault of a young girl. Sound intense? It is. It is also extremely thoughtful and very funny.
In a quixotic embrace of How I Learned to Drive’s dominant motif, I have two drives to tell you about. First, a little more background: Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive as a response to Nabokov’s Lolita. If you have never read Lolita, the book absolutely lives up to its’ reputation. I plan to devote a whole post to the way the book affected my reading of the play in the next few weeks. For now though, I want to share a bit of trivia I have come to treasure. Nabokov wrote part of Lolita in Ashland, Oregon. You can bet I thought about that on my road trip down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this weekend.
There is something liberating and romantic about road trips. Even when they go wrong, which leads me back to my car in the shop. To keep the story short, my car broke down in Ashland. It broke down next to my motel, a place with all the charm of a jail-house in a country-western song. Luckily, that motel was immediately adjacent to a garage. Two of the nicest mechanics in the history of automotive-maintenance diagnosed it as in need of repairs, that could keep me in the Valley for days. Or they could do a temporary fix and I would make it home safe and sound, so long as I drove slow, did not stop, and kept the air conditioning turned off. I pride myself on being a self-reliant woman, a feminist, however faced with a broken down car it was comforting to have a mechanic call me ‘sweet-heart’ as he taught me how to feather the throttle. (Yes, I realize how that sounds, but that is the actual term for a technique that involves working the brake and accelerator pedal to get a car to not stall out as you shift gears. I did not master this technique, by the way, they ended up having to make another adjustment to help me home.) The experience was a good reminder of why driving is such a potent metaphor: cars offer an illusion of independence and yet the roads we drive on and the help we have (some more than others) in maintaining our cars is testament to our interdependence.
Almost a year ago, I took another road-trip. I did not have a car, but I really needed to get out of Staunton. Two of the finest folks I know agreed to deliver me to another friend’s place in West Virginia. The three of us share a love of bluegrass and country music: Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, you get the idea. Somehow on the drive we ended up listening to Conway Twitty’s You’ve Never Been This Far Before. The reassuring rhythm of that song offers a counterpoint to the lyrics’ more than slightly sinister story a sexual encounter. The song stuck with me and resurfaced when I began work on How I Learned to Drive.
You’ve Never Been This Far Before is from a male perspective and the description of his conquest revolves around the inexperience and clear nervousness the woman or girl feels about the “chance” that they are “taking.” The situation is vague, leaving it to the listener to fill in the details to determine what to make of the singer saying he “doesn’t know” and “doesn’t care” what made her tell some third party that she doesn’t “love him anymore.” What is clear to the man is that she “hasn’t been this far before.” Songs like this one haunt seemingly wholesome music catalogues. The easy-listening sixties sound of Gary Puckett& The Union Gap contains two such titles: Young Girl and This Girl is a Woman Now. (Vogel lists these and others in her script.) These songs work a lot like How I Learned to Drive, using the comfortable and familiar as a counterpoint to the common but dangerous ground they cover.
Going there, exploring uncomfortable parts of human experience, and offering a fictional touchstone that may offer some solace as we stare down a subject in real life, or provoke us to think about a subject before that day comes is one of the main ways that I believe art serves us. And tonight I have my first meeting with the artists who have agreed to go on this journey with me. I am so grateful to them and so excited to dig in.