Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” is the powerfully gripping theater of a young woman arising out of an impoverished family and region of America to become abused by her uncle over a long period of time while both neighbors and immediate family look on unknowing and only carelessly, intermittently, caring.
The play is being performed by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project through November 25 at the Roberts Studio Theatre at The Calderwood Pavilion in Boston.
Uncle Peck, played be Dennis Trainor Jr., betrays, with the aid of this social wreckage, his better self and an innocent niece as a diabolical juggler who cares both too much and too little.
Jennifer Rohn plays Li’l Bit, the abused child/woman who wants some control over her life in an environment where a woman’s control over both her social/economic status and sexuality is minimal. Any gains must continuously be wrested with all the powers of mind and character one possesses.
The acting of the two principles is sterling and the supporting cast of family solid and nuanced. Li’l Bit surely has gumption, of which gumption her nickname is probably a tip-off, but, along with her gumption, Li’l Bit has been born with the minimal status of a female in a male chauvinist environment.
Her ambition to go to college on scholarship is one prong of ambition which is continuously mocked, or at least seriously teased by the other women. They mock their own status by reducing themselves in gossip to baby machines or sexual entertainment for the men who work and bring home ‘the bacon.’
They are quite entertaining in this role and expect a laugh. But to this viewer there is something denigrating about their reflections and their cruel japes, which hint at a personal bitterness which foretells social tragedy.
Li’l Bit does her best to escape her toxic surroundings, but her escape unfortunately is mainly into the family automobile where her uncle Peck finds a private shelter to entice her into an abusive, long-term relationship. The extent of this relationship is only fully revealed in flashbacks where the audience sees, in horror, an even younger Li’l Bit so underage that she must sit in Uncle Peck’s lap, which Peck readily offers, to reach the pedals of her ‘driving lesson.’
The play goes on not only in theater time but in real time — one hour and a half without intermission — to reveal the crooked relationship between the two at great length.
My personal reaction was that I didn’t need what seemed to me a repetitively clinical examination of a damaging relationship – as though I were sitting and expected to take copious notes in Abnormal Psychology 101.
But, perhaps, I did in some senses need this exposure to rub away at preconceptions I hold from only a distant relationship to a too common, overlooked tragedy in our society.
One wants to look away, and in the dynamics of sexual abuse, there are complex factors one never fully visualizes. For one, both Uncle Peck and his victim, Li’l Bit, seem driven, helplessly, to continue in ingenious, if blind ways, their toxic relationship. Lil Bit finds in Uncle Peck, one of the few, if not the only adult, who has time for her and her ambitions.
Lil’ Bit is young, if not a child, and is perhaps fallible to wishful thinking i.e. feeling she is powerful enough to control an out-of-control situation which we, the audience, see only from the outside while Lil’ Bit is nested in the bosom of a family to which toxic sexuality, though of a socially acceptable nature, which they accept, is naive. What to do when family and not young ideals follow one to the family car, and even to the college dorm room?
Uncle Peck seems at times not only blind, but unable to resist the dynamic of his desire, washing, on the one hand, dirty dishes that other males disdainfully wouldn’t touch as woman’s work, while compulsively petting with the other hand an available female. And, if one desires further complicating complicity, Uncle Peck’s moniker comes from the slang ‘pecker,’ which was bestowed upon him by his loving family.
The ASP actors know so convincingly how to navigate, how to embody the twists and turns of two souls, ill met, ill starred, that this witness found himself hanging on through the dangerous, scarifying turns of “How I Learned to Drive” even to stamping on the brake, repeatedly, imploring his fellow passengers, to think, to slow down with little reward.
(The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s presentation of “How I Learned to Drive” continues through November 25 at the Roberts Studio Theatre at The Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston, Massachusetts.For more information, visit actorsshakespeareproject.org/.)