The mission of the Cleveland Play House is to produce plays that “inspire, stimulate and entertain.” It further intends to bring bold, necessary, personal stories told in imaginative ways to the public.
Paula Vogel’s one-act How I Learned to Drive, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which also was recognized by the Outer Critics Circle Award and New York Drama Critics Award, well fulfills that mission. That being said, in spite of getting a high quality production, How I Learned to Drive is not an easy play to watch. It is a tale of incest and pedophilia.
Pedophilia is a disorder in which “an adult experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children.” Incest is “sexual activity between family members or close relatives.” Both pedophilia and incest are never the victim’s fault, though a well-prepared practitioner makes the victim feel guilty, as if the abuse was their fault.
The plot of this haunting play centers on Li’l Bit, as she traverses her life in rural Maryland and her college years in Baltimore. Li’l Bit and her crass, dysfunctional family give each other names that refer to their genitilia. She was branded with the alias Li’l Bit at birth, her alcoholic mother was known as the “titless wonder,” her misogynistic grandfather “Big Papa,” and her young Cousin BB (Blue Balls).
The story, which is told out of chronological order with the help of a Greek chorus who comment on the tale and fill in as various characters, relates the sexual relationship between Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck.
In many ways, Li’l Bit has been set up for what happens to her. She hears tales of sexual conquest concerning her grandfather of her grandmother and her mother’s falling prey to early sex and pregnancy. Also, being “well endowed,” she receives undue attention from both her junior high school classmates.
It doesn’t help matters when, during the summer of 1962, her mother allows the 11-year old to go driving with her uncle, admonishing her with the phrase, “If anything happens, remember I hold you responsible.” Not only is Li’l Bit thrust into a world of experiences which she is far too young for, she is held responsible for them happening.
The imposition continues when Peck’s wife, Aunt Mary, asks him to “comfort her” when the girl becomes upset, giving him permission to continue the incest. The title leads to the awareness that the car is also the safest place for her, as long as she’s driving — the only time she is free from his abuse.
At times, being abused doesn’t feel to her as if it’s unwanted. And this is perhaps the darkest, most haunting aspect of the piece. The play doesn’t hide from the gritty, dark aspects of Li’l Bit’s mind as we watch her grow up not completely aware that what is going on is wrong. This attitude is enforced by her uncle telling her that he’d never do anything she didn’t want him to do, a control mechanism that those in involved in pedophilia and incest often use.
Li’l Bit is not Uncle Peck’s only victim. He also takes her cousin BB fishing with an outcome similar to that experienced by Li’l Bit.
The CPH production, under the focused attention of director Laura Kepley, is creative and attention-holding. The technical devices aid the visual imagery. Collette Pollard’s set is a slanted road which starts at stage level and ascends to the midlevel of the theater’s back wall. It is flanked by screens which allow Caite Hevner’s projections to take us on the many car rides, and gives us word messages about the actions and how each scene is located within the oral narrative. For example, “Safety First — You and Driver Education” works much better than the traditional way of playing the show on a blank stage with a couple of chairs and tables. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design helps lead through the tale.
Madeleine Lambert hones a realistic performance as Li’l Bit. Her pains become the viewer’s pains. Michael Brusasco is properly horrific as the manipulating Peck, earning his gains at the expenses of others. Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken arc from one character to another with astonishing ease. Each person they portray becomes a living being.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: How I Learned to Drive, in spite of its excellent staging, is not an easy play to watch. It is haunting and dark, and the topic is not something to which everyone can relate. But it deals with a realistic subject that is more prevalent in our society than is often recognized and if you’re willing to open yourself up to the emotional upheaval that the story may induce, this is a play well-worth seeing.
How I Learned to Drive runs through Sun 3/26 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.