Play tackles uncomfortable issue of sexual assault

There will more than a “Lil Bit” of drama and intense emotion when the Heidelberg Theatre stages the award-winning Paula Vogel play, “How I Learned to Drive” Thursday-Sunday.

The 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of the strained sexual relationship between an adult (Uncle Peck) and a much younger girl, (Lil Bit) as she navigates through adolescence, her teenage years, her college years and beyond. Throughout the 90-minute drama, actors will portray the complexity and humanity of the controlling, manipulative relationship which, according to Director Stephen Svoboda, “is hard for us on the outside to understand.”

A small cast of actors – Kenzie James as Lil Bit, Connor Applegate as Uncle Peck and Kyrsten Lilly, Ethan Miller and Rebecca Helt in multiple roles as “chorus” members – do an amazing job with the emotionally challenging script, Stephen said.

“It exposes various layers of truth the audience. As the layers of the relationship are revealed, we begin to understand how damaging it has been” he said. After a good deal of humor throughout the play, a number of surprising revelations come to light near the end: hidden meanings and metaphors in the dialog (throughout), human flaws, role reversals and manipulation.

There’s great value and relevance in the story, especially today when sexual assault and sexual violence seem more and more prevalent at every turn. Criticisms – such as why Lil Bit continued in the relationship – are explored and expectations on the surface are shattered.

“It’s important for students to understand these things happen in people’s lives and there are ramifications,” Stephen said.

As the female lead, Kenzie said the play presents “the right amount of uncomfortableness to motivate people.”

“I wasn’t expecting to connect with the character in the ways that I did,” she said. “With the subject matter, people are expecting a victim story, but this is also a survivor story.”

With the #metoo and the #timesup movements gaining steam, Stephen and the actors are inviting audience members to continue the conversation with a talkback following the Sunday matinee. Dr. Robin Heaton, assistant professor of communication, and Dr. Jo-Ann Lipford Sanders, dean of the School of Education & Counseling, will facilitate the talkback.

“I hope this brings us together in our uncomfortability,” Kenzie said.

Students can attend the Thursday night production free. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. To reserve your ticket, go to gundlachtheatre.org.

Learn more about the School of Music and Theatre.

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