The 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive follows the relationship between Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck.
The story follows the relationship between Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck, from her adolescence through her teenage years into college and beyond. Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation.
Li'l Bit grows up in rural Maryland during the 1960s with a large extended family: her mother, who became pregnant at a young age; her grandmother, a God-fearing former child-bride; her ignorant, sexist grandfather; her Uncle Peck, an uncle who has been affected by experiences in combat but who becomes sexually attracted and obsessed with Li'l Bit; and Aunt Mary, who is in denial of her husband's behaviour.
When Li'l Bit is eleven, Uncle Peck gives her a driving lesson; however, he uses the opportunity to molest her. Li'l Bit is too young to understand what is going on, and while her mother and aunt suspect that Peck has an unhealthy interest in his niece, they do nothing about it. Years pass and Li'l Bit enters puberty. Though she is quite intelligent, her classmates recognize her only for her large breast size. Peck continues to molest her, at one point using his amateur photo studio to take provocative pictures of her. Though he makes her uncomfortable, Peck is only member of her family who is nice to her and supportive of her plans to go to college. He continues to give Li'l Bit driving lessons, and when she drives she develops a feeling of control that she does not have in her home life.
Peck pressures Li'l Bit to have sex with him, and Li'l Bit starts to reject his advances, albeit reluctantly; since they are both "outsiders" in their family, she still feels an odd kinship with him. Li'l Bit goes to college, and is surprised to receive gifts from Uncle Peck in the mail, along with letters counting down to her eighteenth birthday. When she turns eighteen, she confronts Uncle Peck; he's been hoping to finally have sex with her now that she's a legal adult, but more than that, he wants her to marry him. Li'l Bit refuses and permanently severs their relationship. Narrating as an adult, Li'l Bit reveals that she was eventually expelled from college and that Uncle Peck drank himself to death. However, looking back on her experiences, she has learned to forgive Peck for his wrongdoings. She concludes that he did give her something valuable: the freedom she feels only when she drives.
How I Learned to Drive was first produced by Vineyard Theatre (Douglas Aibel, Artistic Director; Jon Nakagawa, Managing Director) in New York City in February, 1997. It was directed by Mark Brokaw; the set design was by Narelle Sissons; the costume design was by Jess Goldstein; the lighting design was by Mark McCullough; the projection design by Jan Hartley and the original sound design was by David van Tieghem; and the production stage manager was Thea Bradshaw Gillies. The cast was as follows:
The Vineyard Theatre production, in association with Daryl Roth and Roy Gabay, moved to the Century Theatre, in New York City, in April, 1997. The Male Greek Chorus was played by Christopher Duva.
A 1999 production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles featured Molly Ringwald and Brian Kerwin.