CPH’s ‘How I Learned to Drive’ boldly takes the road less traveled
By Bob Abelman
It has taken 20 years for Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” to appear on the Cleveland Play House stage. But as we learn from the predatory pedophile at the center of her disturbing story, patience has its rewards.
The play takes place in the mind of a young woman (Madeleine Lambert) nicknamed Li’l Bit by her southern family, who at the age of 11 and continuing through young adulthood, is sexually pursued by her Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco).
“How I Learned to Drive” unfolds as traumatic memories do – scrambled, selective and surreal.
An older Li’l Bit narrates and then jumps into her recollections. A three-member Greek Chorus (Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken) phases in and out as assorted relatives and classmates. And fantastic, often incongruous scenic design serves up often unnerving and rapidly shifting imagery.
Scenes in this show are introduced as chapters in a driver’s education manual, reflective of Uncle Peck’s driving lessons and the seduction, disguised as life-lessons, that come with them. Driving serves as the metaphor that drives Li’l Bit’s storyline.
And everyday items, like eating utensils at mealtime and Uncle Peck’s car during driving lessons, are imagined to serve as subtle reminders of the dream world we’ve entered into.
The play’s unsettling taboo theme, unrelenting and intermission-less presentation, and immense theatricality purposefully challenge our comfort zone. And much of its unnerving dialogue is spoken directly at the audience, daring us to look away while simultaneously drawing us in with its southern-fried lyricism and bittersweet humor as delivered by richly drawn characters whose appeal belies the fire that burns within them.
Though a disturbing work, both the playwright and astute CPH director Laura Kepley succeed at never crossing the double yellow line that keeps this play from having head-on collisions with anything too difficult to sit through.
While touching on explicitly sexual themes, little touching and no nudity take place on stage so to quash the arousal of anything but sympathy for the victim. Even in the scene where middle-aged Uncle Peck is taking suggestive photographs of his 13-year-old niece for his private collection, the sexy lingerie used in other productions is replaced with less alluring garb here.
Although Uncle Peck’s incestuous instincts are couched in endearing charm, genuine affection and the influences of alcohol – and the sensational Brusasco’s immense charm is covered in thick sorghum molasses – nothing serves to rationalize his misguided attraction to Li’l Bit or romanticize his actions.
And while Li’l Bit’s curiosity and flirtatiousness are apparent to all – with Lambert brilliantly displaying the neglect, damage and vulnerability just beneath these desperate acts – we eventually come to understand the family dynamics, the social pressures of early maturation and the careful manipulation by Uncle Peck that inspired them.
Scenic and projection design by Collette Pollard and Caite Hevner, respectively, keep the play’s driving metaphor in the forefront by placing a two-lane strip of asphalt highway in the middle of the stage that runs from its edge to its rear, where the road cascades upward into the rafters. Wonderful images that establish a sense of time, place and surrealism are projected on a horizontal array of screens that surround the performance space.
“How I Learned to Drive” is an important and worthwhile part of Cleveland Play House’s season, and the spellbinding performances turned in by this cast should not be missed. And when you come, and come you must, buckle up.
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 12, 2017.
Lead image: From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li’l Bit), and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck). Photo / Roger Mastroianni