Paula Vogel’s Putlizer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” is not an easy play. But it is a necessary one. Buckle up.
It describes the sexual relationship between Lil Bit, a young woman in rural Maryland on the verge of adulthood, and Uncle Peck, a relative by marriage. There should be no other qualifications on that fact; this is an illegal kind of relationship. But it goes deeper than that when you look at it through the rear-view mirror. It’s complicated.
Director Kelly M. Beuth leads an impassioned production at Subversive Theatre that feels deeply personal and rightfully confrontational. That much would be true even without the context of our current moment in history. To be clear, the play was provocative when it premiered 21 years ago (and won the Pulitzer a year later), but it resonates differently right now. Time is starting to catch up to the brave storytelling that Vogel, through Lil Bit’s narration, has encouraged. Humanity is having a moment. The truth is coming out.
This is as a memory play. It reveals itself in shades and shadows, like whispers that are haunting and healing. Events take place out of chronological order. In attempting to string together logical conclusions from this evidence, we eventually feel the fact that one’s history of sexual abuse, especially when it involves a child, is never self-contained. What first feels innocent, like driving lessons with your cool uncle, morphs stealthily into manipulation, and much more. Vogel uses Lil Bit’s unfortunately common story to expose the mechanics of such an evil plot, as an education for us and a healing turning point for this woman.
Andrea Gollhardt gives a riveting performance as Lil Bit, holding everything together with commanding maturity that serves Lil Bit, and this ensemble, well. There’s something captivating about her focus, as if she’s sitting alone with us one-on-one, divulging her past over an untouched cup of tea. I wished for more range in those flashback scenes, chances to localize Lil Bit’s age and demeanor with more sharpness; but again, memories tend to reflect and not recreate. Still, there’s nothing missing from this performance. Her pain is palpable, and her tears are real. Bravo.
John Profeta gives an uncomfortably resonant performance as Uncle Peck, proving his mettle as one of Buffalo’s most capable actors. You can see the layers in his preparation, the deftness with Uncle Peck steps through his mistakes. The challenge with a character like Uncle Peck is the need to see his own humanity in light of his darkness. Profeta treads the line between understanding and compassion, and presents Uncle Peck as a list of facts, again a composite of Lil Bit’s recollections.
Beuth uses Vogel’s Greek chorus to add poetry and rhythm to flashback scenes, sometimes too much of it. The ensemble, though serviceable, is too large for these proportions, and their performances are inconsistent. There are times when I wished for less punctuation and fewer devices, such as the relentless barrage of projections that visually depict Vogel’s chapter titles (which, as written, are also announced for our reference). Their PowerPoint-like design, sloppily constructed with pixelated graphic art and out-of-the-box computer fonts, undermine the deep, profound exercise in Vogel’s prizewinning text. They distract from Vogel’s carefully constructed abstractions, and appear to exist solely for technical reasons.
Of the play’s many scenes, one stands out as the best culmination of the production’s total performance and design efforts. In Uncle Peck’s basement, and three-quarters of the way through Vogel’s intermissionless marathon, we suffocate in empathy for Lil Bit as her uncle photographs her in demure but wholly inappropriate poses. The desire and inability to delete hard evidence of things that once happened to us. The need to take the wheel and drive off into the sunset, alone.
“How I Learned to Drive,” by Paula Vogel
3 stars (out of four)
Subversive Theatre Collective
The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave., Buffalo, NY 14207
Runs through Feb. 10, Thurs.–Sat. at 8 p.m.
Tickets are available online and at the box office. $30 general admission, $25 members, students and seniors.