HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
Reviewed by Stephen Radosh
It’s the start of a new and important season for CV Rep. They will soon move from the small confines of their current home to their newly renovated one at the site of the old Imax Theatre. This is a company which, in my opinion, consistently maintains and delivers professional quality theatre and is willing to present interesting and thought provoking plays that are not always well known to the public-at-large.
Such is the case with their first offering of the season, “How I Learned To Drive,” the Pulitzer Prize winning memory play by Paula Vogel playing now until Nov. 18, 2018. Let me say right from the start that this play is an intense, shocking and emotionally charged work that delves into some of our country’s most taboo social behaviors; pedophilia, alcoholism, and incest. In these times of #Me Too, “How I Learned to Drive,” seems more relevant, depressing, and yes, even funnier, than it did when first produced in 1997.
A woman whom we know only as “Li’l Bit” (Angela Sauer) is our guide through her childhood in the rural landscape of Maryland in the early 1960’s. It is only moments until the audience sees that her Uncle Peck’s (Dennis Gersten) driving lessons are simply excuses for behaviors deemed socially unacceptable towards his niece. In scenes that follow we see how over the course of 7 years he manipulates Li’l Bit, who is 11 at the start of her uncle’s abuse, into ever more overtly sexual situations and how these actions ultimately affect him as well as the recipient of his affections.
To offset the shock of witnessing these interactions, Ms. Vogel applies a soft and often musical lyricism to the dialogue which prevents the audience from being totally alienated to Uncle Peck and the other family members who may or may not be aware of what is going on around them.
The dramatic style employed by Ms. Vogel is, in fact, more of a mélange of various styles. It is a risky choice as it might have caused audience confusion but one that ultimately pays off. From the Brechtian method of giving each scene a title, in this case car related actions recited by a ‘Greek Chorus,” to the Tennessee Williams-like use of soft Southern images bordering on poetry to the crispness and clarity of natural conversation, the play’s various tones allow us to understand Uncle Peck a little more than we might otherwise. The play’s timeline is also a very fluid one which through its non-linear style allows information to be doled out in absorbable pieces giving the audience time to process. It becomes clear that while Uncle Peck has justified his actions by calling them ‘love’ he is also morally conflicted as supported by his drinking and ever-growing isolation.
Under the nuanced and elegant direction of Joanne Gordon, the cast really gets to shine. As Li’l Bit, Angela Sauer gives a thoroughly touching performance. She effortlessly glides between time periods as the play switches events in what seems to be a random pattern, which is exactly what she is doing as she recalls various incidents from her past. She jumps from adult to a girl of 11 to adult then to a teenager of 17 with the ease of an Olympic pole vaulter. Watching her face freeze in fright when her uncle touches her in a way no uncle should, says more than an entire page of dialogue ever could about the trauma she is experiencing. Ms Sauer delivers many such magnificent moments. It is a performance not to be missed.
It is a major bow to Dennis Gersten’s skill as an actor that he manages to make Uncle Peck someone who despite the horrific things he is doing to his niece also someone who is likeable and even somewhat sympathetic. Despite being married, he creates a character who is clearly a lonely man and sees in his niece someone who is also a bit of an outsider and with whom he can communicate on an emotional level. It came as quite a surprise to me when I realized that on some levels, his performance actually made me feel sorry for the man. Not an easy task when that person is a manipulative pedophile.
Debra Cardona is another standout. She plays several key roles including Uncle Peck’s wife and Li’l Bit’s mother. Comedy is essential to a play dealing with the heaviest of subjects such as this one does. As the mother, Ms. Cardona delivers a much needed moment of comic relief as she recites to her daughter passages from “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.” Even at lighter moments like this one, the playwright still manages to point out how one’s advice on a subject is very often a product of the time when that subject was first addressed by the one giving the advice. It might not always be correct by today’s standards or even remotely PC but it is delivered in earnest and is simply, the best advice the giver knows.
Rounding out the cast are Charles Pasternak and Jillian Taylor, both taking on several roles. They too have a comic relief moment as the lusty grandparents who, despite their advanced years, still can’t wait to ‘do it’ and don’t really care who knows it.
The clever set by Jimmy Cuomo provides various playing areas among pieces of a map much as the play is comprised of pieces of Li’l Bit’s memories. It is perfectly enhanced by Moira Wilkie Whitaker spot on lighting (all puns intended).
”How I Learned to Drive” is a thought provoking play about several topics on which most people would rather not dwell. It is at times disturbing and even downright horrifying but it also is a wonderful example of what makes theatre great. Don't miss it !!!!!!!!!