'How I Learned to Drive' delivers a tense commentary on controversial themes

Syracuse Stage's production of Paula Vogel's play deals with the problems of pedophilia, manipulation, incest and misogyny.

On a two-way road that stretches from center stage into infinity, two actors saunter in and settle into chairs facing the audience. Without touching each other and still engaged in conversation, the man instructs the audience as he unhooks the bra of his uneasy yet compliant niece and marvels at her breasts.

Syracuse Stage’s latest offering, co-produced with Cleveland Playhouse, “How I learnt to Drive” dealing with themes of pedophilia, manipulation, incest and misogyny, does little to comfort the audience.

Photo: Courtesy of Syracuse Stage

Set in 1960’s rural Maryland, this Pulitzer Prize winning memory play is about a buxom girl, L’il Bit (Madeleine Lambert) as she reflects and come to terms with the deeply disturbing and intimate relationship she shared with her Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco), throughout her adolescence.

Written by Paula Vogel, the play is told out of chronological order and uses the metaphor of driving to show the protagonist’s journey into adulthood. Uncle Peck also uses these driving lessons as an excuse to be alone with L’il bit and abuse her.

The two main characters are often joined by three other characters who form the Greek chorus and slip under the skins of various characters, such as L’il Bit’s drunkard mother, “Titless Wonder,” a misogynist grandfather, with his hands always in his pants, “Big Papa,” a submissive grandmother and Cousin Blue Balls. With these suggestive names, Vogel seems to be making a statement of how society recognizes and accords positions in society.

Vogel, through the character of Uncle Peck turns away from the culture of victimization because Uncle Peck is not a demon. Abusers, often are not faceless men lurking in the dark but familiar, human faces. He is a suave, Southern gentleman who knows the boundaries of social propriety, who waits out to consummate till her niece reaches the age of 18.

The play makes this uncomfortable ride easy by the inventive use of humor, metaphors, funny scene titles and the familiar tunes of 1960s music. In one of the flashbacks, the metaphor of the fishing is used to illustrate Uncle Peck’s modus operandi as he lured in Cousin BB, before L’il Bit, when he was young.

Tension is punctuated by uncomfortable silences and stilted conversations exchanged between characters, which is not allowed to dissipate. Witty and naturalistic dialogue combine grief and humor, where one smells the vapors of sadness after the ephemeral bubble of humor pops, allowing terror to linger on.

For instance, in one of the most hilarious sequences, “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” the inebriated mother can be seen spouting advice like, “Stay with one drink all night, just like the man you came with,” which is soon followed by a spell of silence as the waiter realizes the ignoble intentions of Uncle Peck who is out with L’il Bit to celebrate at a posh restaurant.

Director Laura Kepley stays true to Vogel’s vision but poor stage management with conspicuous transitions dispels the illusion she’s trying to sell.

Lambert as L’il bit hardly shows transition as she switches from a 13 year old to a 27 year-old and leaves much to be desired. Brusasco also delivers an underwhelming performance failing to bring the complexities of Uncle Peck to the fore. Karis Danish as the female Greek chorus plays both the hilarious drunk mother and Uncle Peck’s helpless, faithful wife with equal conviction.

This play isn’t a diatribe on sexual abuse; instead it is a very personal story of a character that achieves empowerment by confronting her past. In the end, L’il Bit is able to look into the rearview mirror, smile at the figure of her long gone Uncle Peck in the backseat and drive away; as if, beckoning he audience to take control of the wheels of their lives and drive on.

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