BWW Review: Strawberry Theatre Workshop's HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE Surprises
One thing I've found with Paula Vogel's plays is that they never cease to surprise. You may think you know what you're in for but then she pulls back layer upon layer giving you so much more than you bargained for. This is certainly true with her Pulitzer Prize winning play "How I Learned to Drive", currently being offered from Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts as you're given a truly horrifying subject and left unsure how to feel about those perpetrating it.
In the play Vogel examines the teen years and beyond of Li'l Bit (Amy Danneker) as she grows up in the 1960's and 70's in rural Maryland. The play jumps back and forth in time utilizing the metaphor of Li'l Bit learning how to drive from her charismatic Uncle Peck (Frank Boyd) as well as a Greek chorus (Shanna Allman, Rachel Guyer-Mafune, and Marco Adiak Voli) acting as narrators and portraying the rest of Li'l Bit's family. But what the metaphor is really addressing is how Li'l Bit dealt with the ongoing controlling, incestuous, sexual relationship from her Uncle that escalated into her college years.
The most surprising thing about the play is how Vogel, and of course Boyd, can make this child molester seem almost sympathetic or at least likable. You hate what he's doing but you can easily see, especially given Li'l Bit's home life, how she could be drawn to him. But as alluring as he is, nothing can excuse what he does and that's where the ick factor comes in. This is definitely a play that should come with a trigger warning especially since director Ryan Guzzo Purcell and the cast have handled it in such an honest and raw way that it certainly has the ring of truth to it all.
Danneker has a strength and power to her which reads into the character's confidence especially in her later years. But she still manages that vulnerability when it comes to Uncle Peck and it's that vulnerability that keeps the play on a razor's edge making the audience fear for her. Boyd manages the role of a master manipulator without ever showing it happening or even in fact showing that the character knows it's happening. The machinations all feel so effortless that you second guess whether they were indeed machinations or just him doing what he felt he needed to survive. And the Greek Chorus trio brought in some stunning moments each as well showing how this family could have so easily let this happen.
This was one of Vogel's early works that got her on everyone's radar and it's still quite resonant and powerful today especially when done so well. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Strawberry Theatre Workshop's production of "How I Learned to Drive" a creeped out YAY. It's tough to get audiences into the theater in the summer months. This one's worth coming inside.
"How I Learned to Drive" from Strawberry Theatre Workshop performs at 12th Ave Arts through July 7th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.strawshop.org.