Brent Gibbs hasn't made it easy on himself or his University of Arizona student actors.

Arizona Repertory Company opens previews of "How I Learned to Drive" on Sunday, a bit short of three weeks after school started.

And he is directing a play that is funny and compelling, but is difficult emotionally for both actors and audiences.

That shorter-than-usual rehearsal process "is what they encounter in the professional world," Gibbs says. And working in the professional world is what these students are training for.

And then there's the play. It has painful subject matters: incest, pedophilia, alcoholism, misogyny. They are dealt with with the seriousness they warrant, but with a humor and perspective that makes the story palpable and finally, satisfying.

"How I Learned to Drive" won playwright Paula Vogel a Pulitzer in 1998, and has had an active life in theaters around the country since. It is about Li'l Bit and her relationship with her much older, kinda creepy, kinda tragic Uncle Peck, her aunt's husband. The story, told from Li'l Bit's adult perspective, follows them from her adolescence through her teen years and college. Uncle Peck's relationship with Li'l Bit is most unhealthy. It is that, the characters' struggles, and Li'l Bit's recognition of the power she possesses that drive the story.

"It is a very delicate subject to deal with," says Gibbs, noting that any actors uncomfortable with the subject were recused from the audition process.

"We make sure all the actors are comfortable and respectful of each other as we try to tell the story as honestly as we can," he says. "We've been helped out in that in Paula Vogel's writing."

And while the situations in the play can be difficult, they certainly aren't gratuitous.

"She paints the portrait in such a deft way," Gibbs says.

"This piece tells a disturbing story that you are drawn to in a way that allows for contemplation. You are able to think instead of just making a judgement."

Heavy subjects, sure, but this is a script that knows when to lighten up and doesn't try to play on easy emotions.

"I suggest the audience come in ready to enjoy wonderful writing and to think, which isn't such a bad thing to ask an audience to do," Gibbs says.

"It's not trying to change anyone's mind in terms of what happened. But you can appreciate Li'l Bit's point of view, and Vogel's point of view in how she deals with the subject matter. She turns it into an opportunity to look deeply into what happens in these relationships. There is a triumph of the will that happens in this play."

If you go

• What: Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of "How I Learned to Drive."

• By: Paula Vogel.

• Director: Brent Gibbs.

• When: Previews are 1:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday; regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Continues through Sept. 30.

• Where: Tornabene Theatre in the University of Arizona Fine Arts Complex, North Park Avenue and East Speedway.

• Tickets: $17 previews; $28 for regular performances. Discounts available.

• Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, with no intermission.