Arizona Repertory Theatre
UA takes on challenging 'How I Learned to Drive'
Story with grit and sadness that echoes Greek tragedies
There is nothing easy about “How I Learned to Drive,” by Paula Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1997 play. Its taboo subject matter – child molestation by a trusted uncle and his ongoing obsession with the girl – is aberrant and loathsome. Jumping around in time through 20 scenes, mostly in the 1960s, its jigsaw puzzle sequencing only slowly reveals the truth and its dire consequences. The show’s simple set offers no place to hide.
Vogel’s words and subtext place big demands of its lead actor and actress also. The actress must have exceptional range; the actor exceptional depth. Together, they are whipsawed between scenes of private sexual tension and convivial dysfunctional family. Each must vacillate in his or her own way between affection and self-loathing, sugarcoated with a slight Southern accent.
Excellent young cast
Fortunately, director Brent Gibbs has found a cast up to the challenges. Brenna Welsh, a sophomore in the Theatre Arts program, gives a masterful performance as Li'l Bit, who learns how to drive and much, much more from her Uncle Peck. Her only previous role for ART was as a lowly plebian in last year’s production of “Julius Caesar.”
Welsh skillfully handled the complex range of emotions and stages in life of her character, from a child of 11 to a woman in her 30’s. Throughout her accent (and by extension, her concentration) was flawless. She eloquently articulated the conflicts between Li'l Bits’ body and mind in her relationship with her uncle.
Sean Meshew, a senior majoring in Musical Theatre, gave only a slightly less impressive performance as Uncle Peck. The key to the play is Peck’s own barely articulated sexual victimhood, possibly as a child, possibly during World War II, which shifts him from villain to tragic figure.
Meshew gave the required depth to his character, showing Peck’s genuine kindness and affection as Li'l Bits’ protector, barely able to conceal the battle raging inside him regarding his own sexuality. Meshew still has a young man’s gawkiness in some scenes, but mostly his body language demonstrated the appropriate maturity and especially the inner fears of a man fighting a losing battle on multiple fronts.
The Greek Chorus
Harkening to the play’s recasting of themes from ancient Greek drama, Vogel incorporates a Greek Chorus of three utility actors playing multiple roles, mostly as family – Lil’Bit’s grandfather and grandmother, mother, and aunt (Peck’s wife). They also supply other incidental parts as waiter, or teenagers at a dance. Owen Virgin in the Male Greek Chorus role, Kate Nienhauser as the Female Greek Chorus and Kathleen Cannon as the Teenage Greek Chorus each demonstrated strong versatility. In particular, Virgin’s physical comedy added a new dimension to traditional adolescent awkwardness.
Scenic designer Jacklyn Fitzgerald, an MFA student, built elements of wrecked automobiles into the set, extending the play’s metaphor in an interesting way.
Gibbs effectively explored the nuance of Vogel’s text, especially when the unexpected comedic moments were fully realized, a necessity to counterbalance the work’s potentially overwhelming sense of obsession and shame. This is play that could be revolting (and for some, it will be, nonetheless), but Gibbs musters his resources to make it a compelling cautionary tale. A great 60’s soundtrack of appropriate, lesser-known, but still familiar, AM radio hits compliments the action.
The show’s small cast makes it an unusual selection for ART, which normally offers larger production to provide more acting opportunities for its students. In addition to introducing Welsh, the play serves a legitimate educational purpose as a rare work, like Nabokov’s “Lolita,” that examines through art, rather than criminology, our primal underpinnings and the psychology of the forbidden.
Paula Vogel has discussed the power of negative empathy, being drawn to unlikeable characters, and its power on the stage. Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “How I Learned to Drive” is a study of such darkness, inherently offensive, but leavened by heart, empathy and talent.