Paula Vogel's road home "How I Learned to Drive' has propelled the Maryland-bred playwright into prominence and given her license to take on projects and issues close to her heart.


May 03, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK -- It's been a time of champagne and flowers for 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. But there have also been tears.

Walking outside the Century Theatre the day after her award-winning play, "How I Learned to Drive," ended its 15-month off-Broadway run, Vogel can't bear to look at the Dumpster filling up with pieces of the demolished set.

Vogel attended the final performance and thought she'd be fine. "I was talking to friends and saying, 'You know, I'm at peace with this. We're leaving with our head held high. This is a great time to do it,'" she says.

But her partner, Anne Fausto-Sterling, brought Kleenex along just in case. And sure enough, Vogel burst into tears at the play's opening words. "I was a sloppy mess through the whole thing," she says with a self-conscious smile.

It's not as if "How I Learned to Drive" is driving off into the sunset, however. Before the Pulitzer was announced, 30 productions were scheduled nationally and internationally next season. The day of the Pulitzer, Vogel says, that number rose to 50.

There are several current productions as well. Vogel wears a silver bracelet and ring engraved with Native American designs, a gift from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, where she wrote the play two years ago and where it is completing a one-month run before transferring to Rhode Island. Another production runs through the end of May in Atlanta. Later this month she will oversee rehearsals of the London production. And Friday she will be back in her home state of Maryland attending the final preview performance of "How I Learned to Drive" at Center Stage.

But for now, Vogel, dressed in a maroon velvet blazer and navy velvet slacks, is visiting the play's late off-Broadway home; she poses for photos below the large yellow banner bearing the play's title, a banner that is about to become just another piece of theater memorabilia.

With typical self-deprecating humor, Vogel, who stands barely over 5 feet tall, says she is uncomfortable with the notion of the Pulitzer putting her on a pedestal. Instead, she is glad her friends have jokingly taken to calling her "Pulitzer Prize-winning short person."

Vogel, 46, is only the 10th woman to win a Pulitzer for drama, and she feels a strong sense of responsibility. "I'm excited and I'm also mourning the fact that I'm only the 10th woman," says the playwright, who is on a two-year sabbatical from Brown University, where she heads the graduate playwriting program. "I want to hopefully be an example of what I call 'The Cockroach Theory of Playwriting,' which is, when theaters let me through the door, I'm going to bring 10 or 12 with me."

In terms of her writing, she says, "The responsibility really has to be that I have to set out on the next play and go, 'OK. Go ahead. Fail. Dare yourself to fail.' Because you can only break through a new territory if you do that. It's very frightening. You can't think about reputation or protecting anything. You have to have this great exuberant sense that you can lose it all and let's have fun doing it."

It's not difficult to imagine Vogel having fun. A woman who laughs easily and often, she possesses the rare talent of being able to find humor in difficult situations. This approach also characterizes her plays, which use a mixture of comedy and tragedy to tackle a variety of tough issues.

"The Baltimore Waltz," which Center Stage produced in 1992, was a bittersweet comic fantasy based on the death of her brother Carl from AIDS. "The Mineola Twins," which debuted in Alaska last season and will be produced off-Broadway in January, uses the story of twin sisters to examine the breach between liberals and conservatives. "Hot and Throbbing," her provocatively titled 1995 play, is about pornography and domestic violence. And "How I Learned to Drive," which is set in Maryland, tells the story of a young woman and the pedophiliac uncle who teaches her to drive.

Irene Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage, admits she initially had mixed feelings about "How I Learned to Drive." The difficulty, she explains, was that Vogel presents two sides of pedophilia - issue Lewis wasn't at all sure had two sides. "The testament to her writing, Pulitzer aside, is that, yes, there seem to be two sides," Lewis says.

"I think it's remarkable that she's able to find forgiveness at the end of the play. That to me is what really makes it a stunning achievement - that it does not feel the least bit glib or artificial," says Barry Edelstein, who is directing the Center Stage production. "You've got to note that the play in no way endorses this kind of relationship, . . . but through the specificity and the deep humanity of the two people involved, they are able to make it into something other than a talk-show tawdriness."

Vogel herself explains, "I think emotionally, a lot of people will go, 'That to me feels truthful.' The movie-of-the-week does not."

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