BWW Review: The Landing Theatre Company And Obsidian Theater Team Up With HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
Attending a play about sexual abuse is like walking into a boxing ring completely unprepared; you feel yourself hunching over as you enter the theater, bracing for shock, disgust, and looking out for any cheap shots that might come your way.
The Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater have teamed up to produce the award-winning HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE. It's a painful story to watch at times, but it also sheds a bright, honest light on something that's rarely addressed in our culture: the idea of the nice, gentle guy as predator. It's ironic considering that most real sexual predators are exactly that: seemingly nice and appearing to care, and yet theoretically most people picture something very different when you say the word 'pervert'. Written by Paula Vogel, the play tackles such taboo subjects as pedophilia and incest with sensitivity and care. Most of the story is shown in flashbacks from the point of view of Lil' Bit, our protagonist, who was first violated by her Uncle Peck when she was eleven. The two characters rarely touch in the entire play; the abuse is portrayed with the perfect level of remove, and yet it's clear that she is victimized. The psychological aspects of abuse are far more scrutinized here than any actual physical portrayal. The play is tactful; this is not a shoddy attempt to disgust or shock. Vogel's gift is in illuminating an unsavory subject in a respectful way.
The strength of HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is in the illumination of all the layers of dysfunction within the family. The play is unapologetically candid and honest. I am repulsed by Uncle Peck, but at the same time I am able to see his pain, his sickness. I never like him, never feel sorry for him, but I see how this damaged person deals with his pain in ways that are subtle and wily in their destructiveness. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Lil' Bit and Uncle Peck's relationship is how he makes her complicit in the abuse, leading her to believe that she has more power and control than she actually does.
Director Paige Kiliany leads a fine cast of actors who are adept at navigating the difficult subject matter. Tom Stell takes on the challenging role of Uncle Peck with a depth and empathy that make this character multi-layered and interesting. It would be so easy to play the part as a creepy, one-dimensional deviant, but Stell finds the humanity in the role, creating a fully realized, if deeply flawed, human being. While Kara Greenberg is generally an appealing presence onstage, she is sometimes a little stiff, particularly in the first fifteen minutes of the show. There are times when it sounds as if she is reading her lines instead of inhabiting the character. Greenberg's strength is in the vulnerability she excudes, conjuring a sad, confused girl whom we want to rescue.
The supporting actors play a variety of characters in the show. Some of the strongest points in the performance are the scenes with Lil' Bit, her mother, and her grandmother, entitled "On Men, Sex, And Women, Parts 1 and 2". These scenes provide much needed comic relief, with hilarious one-liners around every bend. Greenberg, Storey Hinojosa (as Grandma) and Lyndsay Sweeney (as Lil' Bit's mother) are engaging and enjoyable to watch in these multi-generational rap sessions. It is confusing at times to differentiate between the characters of the aunt and the mother, both played by Lyndsay Sweeny. Perhaps adding a markedly different costume accessory would help matters. Benjamin McLaughlin is nicely versatile in his roles, and especially effective as the waiter who is serving drinks to an underage Lil' Bit.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is an important, if somewhat disturbing, play. It is psychologically dense, but also accessible. Paula Vogel has said, "...it seems to me that one thing that gets left out when we're talking about trauma is the victim's responsibility to look the experience squarely in the eye and then move on. That's the journey I wanted to craft here." Vogel is successful in her goal with this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, inspiring much introspection and discussion for audiences. Ultimately the play is about redemption and survival, and the feeling we're left with is hope.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is showing at the Obsidian Theater from September 4 - 26.
Photo credit: Cressandra Thibodeau