Reviewed by R. Andrew Aguilar on 6/12/2011
Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer prize winning play How I Learned to Drive is a gut-wrenching, powerful exploration of human manipulation that can burn into the mind and soul of any audience. The play focuses primarily on the issue of pedophilia, but enmeshes it with the problems of family life, misogyny, repression, alcohol abuse and incest. Theatre Arlington undertook this bold project under the direction of Todd Hart, and served the demanding play admirably.
The play focuses on two people, a woman nicknamed “’Lil Bit” (Angela Bell) who serves as protagonist and narrator, and her “Uncle Peck.” (James Healy, Jr.) A host of other characters (family, classmates, casual encounters) all fall under the umbrella of a Greek Chorus sub-divided into Female (Sherry Hopkins), Male (Alex Krus), and Teenage (Mikaela Krantz) roles. Often from a flashback perspective, Lil Bit recounts her driving lessons with her uncle from age 12 to 18. Uncle Peck is an incredibly nice, if lonely, guy, the only family member who listens to her, who seems to believe she is capable of becoming something more than a housewife. He also molests her, with increasing intensity. The play’s irony arises from Lil Bit’s driving lessons with and her Uncle. The relationship between these two, simple in concept, is in reality anything but. The lessons themselves are sessions of manipulation, control, and violation; however, as the young girl learns how to drive, she begins to feel a sense of freedom and control, and in some ways, turns the power game back on her abuser.
Director Todd Hart had a strong vision for this play. He assembled a solid, capable cast. No actor played behind or ahead of anyone else and they worked smoothly as an ensemble. The result: a captivating work of theatre art with unyielding momentum, poignancy and resonance. The characters flowed in and out with diligent purpose. There never were any moments bogged down by exposition. The incendiary dramatic energy and build that this play desperately requires functioned throughout.
All actors exhibited enviable skill. Angela Bell, an adult, was convincing as Lil Bit at all ages and showed impressive emotional intelligence as she led us through her Hell, her character’s journey. Sherry Hopkins presented delightful, hysterical, and heartbreaking female characters, most notably Peck’s Wife, and Lil Bit’s mother, wearing the tarnished badge of a veteran of long-term relationship frustration. Her characters were all specific and believable, yet with subtle, perceptible differences. James Healy Jr.’s performance as Uncle Peck was understated but mesmerizing. He demonstrated a level of ease in inhabiting the character’s skin that one generally views only from the most experienced actors. It would be so easy to play Uncle Peck stereotypically as an evil guy, but that would do injustice to the play. Healy did the hard thing — he made Peck likable, in spite of his unspeakable, monstrous obsession. He never raised his voice. He was kind and sincere, firm rather than angry. Nothing that he said or did seemed directed, faked, or forced. His gradual, tortured descent through the play’s arc exhibited genuine elements of tragic fall, a quiet, skillful portrayal that made the audience care about a pedophile.
Occasionally the Greek Chorus reverted to caricature in its effort to differentiate the characters and to illustrate age. It is a daunting task to play multiple characters, especially when development depth for each is almost non-existent; but when more effort is put into “showing” age or a unique physicality and vocal range then the simple truth of telling the story, the audience will tend to focus on acting techniques, not the play.
The technical elements of the production worked well together. The set, symbolic and almost expressionistic, used large painted murals of country roads (nicely done by Scenic Artist/Props Designer Jennye James), street signs, and suggestions of location rather than literal representations. The playing space was on two levels and allowed for effective movement and action (set design by Jack Hardaway). The sound and the video presentation served the play well, and the lighting complimented or helped set moods. Theatre Arlington is not necessarily known for tackling projects like Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, a very intense, issue-driven, serious piece of theatre. If this production is any indication, Theatre Arlington is more than up to that challenge.
Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive ran at Theatre Arlington through June 12.2011