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Prize Winning Play Navigates Difficult Terrain

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NEW PALTZ -- "How I Learned to Drive," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that explores child sexual abuse as a means to understanding the nature of transgression and forgiveness, will be performed at SUNY New Paltz's Parker Theatre on two weekends, November 14-17 and November 21-24, 2002. This challenging work has been noted for its use of humor to address difficult subject matter.

Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for "How I Learned to Drive" in 1998, though it had been flooring audiences since opening night, winning an Obie Award for playwriting in 1997, as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The central characters, a teenage girl and her uncle, are viewed through the prism of memory during several years in the 1960s and '70s. The sets are minimal and the narrator, L'il Bit, often speaks directly to the audience. A Greek chorus of relatives chimes in with commentary as she learns to shift, reverse and steer her way through a nuanced discussion of sexuality, self-control and familial love.

The Boston Globe praised Vogel's play as "A gutsy, heartfelt story of desperation and survival," in which the playwright illustrates " how one woman learned to live with, rather than be defeated by, the scars of time."

To help viewers address this difficult subject matter, the university has asked its Office of Student Counseling Services to moderate an "audience talk back" after each performance. All audience members will be invited to share their responses to the play with cast members, counselors and the director, Simone Federman.

Vogel herself might appreciate the interactive approach. "Theatre is all about community," she has said. "In these days of increasing isolation where we watch small screens in the dark, or huddle around the computer theatre gives us the chance to gather together in public to look at parts of our lives, and as a community think and feel about these issues which touch us all."

During the last two decades, Vogel has received fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pew and Guggenheim Foundations. She is a professor in the graduate playwriting program at Brown University, and has made work about many difficult topics. Other plays include "The Oldest Profession" (1988) which addresses prostitution, and "The Baltimore Waltz" (1992) which focuses on AIDS. Often, Vogel uses humor to underscore the moral complexities her plays suggest.

Discussing her work, Vogel herself has noted the "emotional imperative" of theatre, a delicate balancing act between entertaining audiences and asking them to examine challenging subjects. "Playwrights have an ethical legacy to follow," she says. "The charge to ask questions in times of crisis."

"How I Learned to Drive" is has become a popular choice in college theatre departments across the country, with recent productions at Brown University, Princeton University, Rice University and state schools in Kansas, Maryland, and Tennessee.

Though the play has comedic elements, it is strictly for adult audiences. All performances are at 8 p.m., except for those on Nov. 17 and 24, which are 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets are $14 for adults; $12 for students and seniors. They are available by phone at 845-257-3880, or in person at the Box Office beginning November 4. Box office hours are Monday - Friday, 11:30 am - 4:30 pm.

Parker Theatre is wheelchair accessible and equipped with an infrared listening system for the hearing impaired. For more information call 845-257-3880.

Images from the production are online at

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