Lessons and Lechery

'How I Learned to Drive' at Arizona Repertory occasionally veers off-course

Paula Vogel's oft-produced play, How I Learned to Drive, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama, cruises into Tucson once again, this time courtesy of the students at the University of Arizona Repertory Theatre.

Staged at Live Theatre Workshop in the summer of 2011 and at Arizona Theatre Company way back in 1999, the disturbing play delves into incest and power. Driving turns out to be a metaphor for something much darker. Unfortunately, this production takes a few wrong turns.

Our protagonist is a young woman known to her family as Li'l Bit (Brenna Welsh). Drawing on her memories, she narrates the play, first conjuring up a traditionally American image of a boy and girl "parking" in a car. Then she takes it back in time to rural Maryland in 1967, when Li'l Bit is 17.

Joining the scene, Li'l Bit steps into a car consisting of just two chairs. She begins a classic push-pull with the boy (played by Sean Meshew) over "how far" they will go sexually. The actors face forward, not touching each other, simply miming the actions.

But Li'l Bit is parking not with a boy, but a married man—and not just any married man. The scene changes entirely in tone when Li'l Bit asks him to take her home and calls him Uncle Peck. Peck is married to L'il Bit's Aunt Mary, and this "relationship" had been going on for some time.

But Uncle Peck really is teaching Li'l Bit to drive. A recorded voice-over, narrated by an unseen driver's-ed teacher, links the scenes with advice on driving. Peck takes the task seriously, but he also uses it as a means to be alone with his wife's niece.

The minimalist staging—with the actors miming props and simply suggesting intimate actions—indicates that we are watching what playwright Tennessee Williams called a memory play. In The Glass Menagerie, Williams has the narrator, Tom, explain to the audience, "Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted ... it is not realistic. In memory, everything seems to happen to music."

Playwright Vogel and director Brent Gibbs have taken Williams' approach to heart: 1960s music fades in and out of many scenes, often coming through an invisible car radio.

Welsh does well as Li'l Bit. Rather than signaling her age with childish mannerisms, she plays it straight, allowing us to believe in Li'l Bit's youth through her dialogue and subtle body language. For example, Li'l Bit developed breasts at a young age, and has been made by her family and others to feel self-conscious about them, as if her body is no longer truly her own, but instead the property of others. To convey Li'l Bit's anxiety, Welsh develops a slight hunch and a way of crossing her arms over her chest.

Meshew's acting is a bit studied and stylized, but this works well for his character. Uncle Peck is a man who's always acting, always pretending, to both Li'l Bit and himself, that his intentions are benign, and that his love for her is pure and healthy.

Vogel, remarkably, does not write Uncle Peck as a pure villain. By the end of the play, we have come to see him as a mysterious and tragic figure, broken and tormented—unable to truly love or be loved.

As for Li'l Bit, her feelings about driving—first fearful, then self-destructive and, finally, confident—mirror her growth as a person. Even so, she has been forever shaped by the "lessons" of Uncle Peck.

The script calls for three "chorus" characters: a Male Chorus (Owen Virgin), a Female Chorus (Kathleen Cannon) and a Teenage Chorus (Kate Nienhauser). These characters do not serve as a traditional Greek chorus, commenting on the action. Instead, they play multiple characters, members of Li'l Bit's family and community.

All three actors are solid, but their performances cause a few uncomfortable moments. Li'l Bit's family is Southern, and they adhere, frankly, to the stereotype of Southerners as ignorant hicks. The actors adopt thick, slightly over-the-top Southern accents, often generating mirth from the audience, despite the somber nature of much of the play.

It's easy to see these broad choices reflecting the fact that the play recounts Li'l Bit's memories. The characters are not nuanced—they represent Li'l Bit's muddled and emotional impressions. Still, at what point does the production stop commenting on stereotypes and go on to push us to laugh at "those ignorant folks"? One suspects that the student actors are often going for easy laughs, in the place of finding the honest humanity of the characters.

To be fair, Cannon does have a humanizing moment as Aunt Mary, when she delivers a speech—riddled with grief and misplaced anger and denial—about Peck's obsession with Li'l Bit.

More such moments would help How I Learned to Drive move from very competent to very moving. Both the play and the production are put together well, but I left the performance stuck in neutral.

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