Live Theatre Workshop
LTW takes edgy turn with 'How I Learned To Drive'
Is a successful production enough to overcome creepy subject matter?
Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned To Drive,” is difficult to assess, given its off-kilter comedic and frequently poignant portrayal of a trusted uncle’s incestuous molestation of his niece.
Vogel manages to mitigate the inherent offensiveness of this premise through characters who seem painfully real and well-structured writing that resonates with despair. The awkward, unexpected humor only briefly obscures and more often highlights a terrible, all-consuming tragedy.
Set in the 1960s, the play is arranged in fast-paced re-enactments of significant moments with Uncle Peck from the perspective of his niece from age 11 to 36. Nicknamed Li’l Bit, she is aided in these non-sequential vignettes by a three-person chorus who stand-in briefly for various relatives, beaus, and friends.
Li’l Bit is both drawn towards and fearful of Uncle Peck’s affection. He’s a war hero. For reasons darkly hinted, he drinks too much. But she is able enforce a modicum of sobriety by bargaining with him for her companionship. She believes she is rescuing him.
Li’l Bit, like Peck, is bright, sensitive and something of an outsider. Peck seems to intuitively understand and appreciate her adolescent angst, her schoolgirl desires. He compliments and manipulates the young girl. But what she sees as empathy, we recognize as leverage. He uses his adult knowledge to make her feel better, both emotionally and physically, and makes her want to do the same for him. As a sexual predator, he insures they share a sense of isolation and secrecy, creating an emotional cocoon for the two of them.
Her first driving lesson at age eleven finds her sitting on his lap over bumpy backwoods roads. We watch his blatant seduction moves that Li’l Bit lacks the maturity to rebuff. Yet Peck’s actions also reveal how pathetic he is. We see his conflict, his caring for Li’l Bit subverted by his pedophilic perversion. His tragic flaw is his belief that his forbidden love for Li’l Bit can bring them both satisfaction and happiness. It’s ironic that her eventual rejection of him, rather than liberating either of them, instead brings both his downfall and sends her sprawling just as helplessly on an alcoholic predator trajectory.
“How I Learned to Drive” at Live Theatre Workshop is both funnier and more intimate than its last presentation in Tucson, a 1999 Arizona Theatre Company production at the Temple of Music and Art.
In the cozier space, director Sabian Trout encourages mawkishly over-the-top work by the chorus members. Their mugging makes laughing easier while placing these deadly serious taboo behaviors in even sharper relief. Amanda Gremel, Rhonda Halquist and David Johnston effectively make up the chorus.
Holli Thenhaus almost breaks our hearts as Li’l Bit – almost because an important element of the play is the ambiguity Vogel creates. Vogel gives us just enough information to question for a moment whether Li’l Bit is entirely a victim. That doubt, which Thenhaus embraces, is one of the most powerful elements in the play, making Li’l Bit richly complex and sincerely human. Thenhaus’ talented facial squirming boldly embodies the many and mercurial moods of an uncertain adolescent at the cusp of adulthood.
The real star, however, is Keith Wick as Peck. His subtle display of inner turmoil – unable to stop himself from doing what he knows is absolutely wrong – keeps our interest and prevents us from dismissing him outright. He genuinely cares for his young charge, but discounts that his desires will destroy them both. His interactions with Thenhaus alternately bubble with genial affection, then froth with sexual tensions.
As entertainment, “How I Learned To Drive” is a tough sell. However, as art, the play is one of the best crafted and emotionally powerful works in recent years.
This Live Theatre Workshop production is well wrought, funny, taut and painfully alive. In the end we can not forgive Peck, but we do understand him, at least somewhat. And we can appreciate how, for better or worse, we are all shaped for the rest of our lives by the primal experiences of our youth.