How I Learned To Drive 


Through Sunday, Apr. 21

PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill

Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive follows a character called Lil’Bit as she reflects on the defensive-driving lessons she received from her Uncle Peck and the sexual abuse that accompanied it.

The PlayMakers production starts with the grind of a garage door raising and the click of a light switch, starkly revealing a life in storage. While other productions of this play tend toward more minimal, intimate sets, designer Jan Chambers places it on a thrust stage in a larger-than-life storage unit, expressing the scale of Lil’Bit’s trauma, which lives, unpacked, in her disassociated body.

As Lil’Bit (Julia Gibson) and a Greek chorus (Emily Bosco, Gabriella Cila, and Dan Toot) begin to unpack, a driving handbook is pulled out, and Uncle Peck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) appears. Then, surrounded by the chorus, Lil’Bit drives deep into her past, with each chapter on manual gears and Maryland driving laws bringing her closer to more painful memories.

Lil’Bit’s penchant for theater history is apparent. She compares dramatic structure to sex and quotes Shakespeare. The Greek chorus reflects her admiration for classical drama, in which the convention is both narrative and representative of society. By casting the chorus as Lil’Bit’s family rather than citizens of Thebes, the play examines the societal structure that enabled much of her abuse.

It’s an unflinching look at an upbringing in which men’s sexual desire is an unstoppable force, while women are the immovable objects held responsible. Cornell is unnerving as Uncle Peck, at once a warm kindred spirit with Lil’Bit and a sickening monster that needs to be stopped. Bosco is equally captivating in the chorus, giving conflicting advice as Lil’Bit’s mother and Uncle Peck’s patient wife, upholding the patriarchy in both roles by placing responsibility on Lil’Bit. 

Between them, Gibson, trapped in the inertia of her memories, grounds the production with vulnerability and strength. Under Lee Sunday Evans’s direction, the ensemble entrenches the audience in a painful inner life that feels deeply real.

Becoming immersed in Lil’Bit’s memories is easy. While this speaks to the production’s strength, it may be too triggering for some viewers, even with space for processing and counselors provided post-show. That caveat aside, by the end, this unpacking is ultimately a hopeful experience. With boxes emptied and garage door wide open, Lil’Bit can finally accelerate towards healing, even knowing what’s in her rear-view mirror. —Katy Koop 

Bad Roads


Through Sunday, Apr. 14

Duke’s Sheafer Theater, Durham

“Unrealistic” is usually bad news in theater criticism. But two shows this week—Bad Roads at Duke and How I Learned to Drive at PlayMakers—give us reason to reexamine our usual critique of that condition. Drive’s stylized depictions of adolescent sexual abuse left some audience members visibly shaken. And after witnessing the American debut of Bad Roads, Natal’ya Vorozhbit’s 2017 documentary drama on the ongoing Ukrainian civil war, I’m convinced: Maybe we’re not ready for the real. 

Vorozhbit has theatrically documented Ukraine’s current struggle for independence since its beginnings in 2013. Her earlier work dramatized recordings of participants in Kiev’s Maidan Revolution, which led to the overthrow of Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Bad Roads zeroes in on the experiences of women in the subsequent war between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. To call them merely harrowing is an understatement.

In one account, a journalist, raped as a hostage, is desperately searching for any empathy left in a sadist (Delaney Dryfoos). In another, an alcoholic medic (Valerie Muensterman) indulges in dark humor with a soldier driving the decapitated body of her lover back home to his wife. 

The panoramic view of a living wartime hell on the reinforced concrete set is leavened, a bit, by high school girls in separatist Donetsk being ostracized for having Ukranian soldier boyfriends, and a high school principal who learns there are no simple mistakes at a contested checkpoint. 

Director Jody McAuliffe probably chose to make all these performances simulacra to varying degrees, not only to accommodate developing actors, but to keep Vorozhbit’s intensity from driving us away. The one miscalculation comes when an inexperienced performer in the opening reduces a hardened journalist to a snarky undergrad playing every line for laughs.

Still, Bad Roads brings us the unreported news: the multi-generational ground truth of women in a war. Even if we can’t say Duke’s production entirely keeps it real, it’s often about as real as we can handle. —Byron Woods