Content warning: This article contains language that may be triggering to some, including references to child sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Long before Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement, playwright Paula Vogel won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for “How I Learned to Drive,” a play about the grooming and sexual abuse of a young girl at the hands of her uncle. Twenty years later, that play, directed by Amber Paige McGinnis, has come to Round House Theatre.
“We are in a historic moment for this country, I think, and for the world at large,” actor Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan said. “This reckoning, this, ‘women being believed,’ women speaking about it and standing up and saying, ‘No, it is not OK to be objectified any longer.’ And men actually heeding it and hearing it — and women, too; there are certainly many men who are victims of that. It is something that is deep and dark in our society and it has not been reckoned with.
“Now that it is, it’s like the floodgates opening.”
Playing Li’l Bit, the main character in “How I Learned to Drive,” Keegan sees up close the impact of the “deep and dark” issue of sexual assault. “It’s one of the things that is most present with me because I can see the audience, because I engage with them directly and ask them to come with me on this journey and take the lessons with me,” she said. “I see them, and it’s hard.”
Hard because one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVR). Hard because in the United States, one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime. As Keegan and her four castmates tell Li’l Bit’s story on the Round House stage, it resonates deeply with the audience.
“It’s hard to witness and it’s hard to face, but it’s where we are right now,” Keegan observed. “There is a reckoning, and as much as perpetrators have to own their actions and the harm they’ve done, the victims have to — if they want to heal, if they want the world to be better — face their own circumstances, too. And find a way to talk about it.”
To make sure that sexual assault victims get the support and help they may need, Round House has partnered with metropolitan-area institutions that provide information about support groups like Safe Shores, Tree House MD, HopeWorks and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). Post-show discussions will feature experts trained to talk about sexual abuse, harassment and trauma, and on-site resources will be available throughout the run.
“The theater is doing everything they can,” said Keegan. “Notices in front of the theater, content warnings — just so you’re aware — and there’s also a little rehearsal space off the lobby if you need to come in and manage something.”
With all that in place, she believes that “How I Learned to Drive” remains a compelling piece of theater that is particularly relevant right now. And she hopes that audiences will experience a catharsis as a story of abuse is opened up to the light as opposed to being swept under the rug.
“I hope that most people come into the theater knowing a little bit about what they’re going to see,” said Keegan, who regards the play as Li’l Bit’s confession of what happened between her and her Uncle Peck (Peter O’Connor) and how it affected her life. “And whatever response they have to it is one that they knew they potentially might have.”
Born and raised in Michigan, Keegan earned a bachelor of arts degree in theater at Western Michigan University before moving to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to perform at the American Shakespeare Center. After a stint in New York, she went to The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at The George Washington University for a master of fine arts degree.
“That’s what brought me to D.C. originally,” she said. “I didn’t know much about the D.C. theater scene at all before I came here.” A month after graduating in 2011, she had her first professional role in the area, in “Stop Kiss” at No Rules Theatre Company, and she decided to stay, performing locally at Round House, Olney Theatre Center and Imagination Stage. Keegan said she first played Li’l Bit “in undergrad, when I was way too young to understand the nuances of the role and the character.”
A big fan of playwright Paula Vogel, Keegan admires “her transparency within very difficult subject matter — the way she handles stuff is really beautiful, it’s honest.”
Also, a fan is Craig Wallace. Long a staple of D.C. theater, Wallace is a resident artist at Round House where he was last seen starring in “Master Harold…and the Boys.” As Male Greek Chorus, he is charged with playing a handful of characters as are his counterparts Female Greek Chorus (Emily Townley) and Teenage Greek Chorus (Daven Ralston). “We’re there to support Li’l Bit and to help her tell her story,” Wallace said. Family members, schoolmates, a stranger on a bus: Vogel’s characters round out Li’l Bit’s unflinching look back at the events that shaped her life.
“I worked with Paula on the world premiere of her play ‘Hot ‘n Throbbing,’ which is about, among other things, domestic violence,” Wallace noted. “One of the things she was adamant about is that there’s examination of character to go around — for everyone. I think she wanted that in this play as well.”
And so, even while Li’l Bit controls the narrative, she speaks a truth in which nothing is really in black and white. Both she and Uncle Peck are complicated, and the characters she draws from memory are shaped and warped by time and imagination.
“I think (Vogel) did want these characters, for Li’l Bit, to be almost 3-D,” Wallace said. “She’s experiencing them when she was a child; they’re almost bigger than life — big, scary monsters.”
Finding the courage to face those monsters — and come to terms with her abuser — is what makes Li’l Bit’s story resonate. Keegan hopes audiences will be similarly courageous. “Don’t shy away from coming to see it,” she said. “If you read about it and say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to deal with that,’ I think maybe that’s a reason you should come.
“I’ve heard people say that this show is going to be ‘a hard sell,’” she added. “I think that’s part of the problem. It’s time for people to stop avoiding the ‘hard sell’ and face the things that need facing. That’s how change happens.
“I hope the theater is packed every night.”
“How I Learned to Drive” runs through Nov 4 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets start at $30, with discounts available for 30 and younger, senior citizens, military and veterans with ID. A $4.50 service fee and $1.50 facility fee is applied to all single ticket purchases via phone, in person and online. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org