It’s seldom that I attend a play that I can actually feel the audience holding their breath with me. When that happens, the ending of the play is bittersweet. I’m always relieved the tension is finally eased, but sad for the precious moment I’ll never get back. That moment lasted one hour and forty-five minutes, no intermission. But I enjoyed the agony of those tense minutes because of the superb acting and directing in Paula Vogel’s HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at the Villanova Theater. A dramatic beginning to a review? Perhaps, but few plays leave me almost speechless on my way out the door.
In this memory play, Vogel takes us on a journey with a series of titled memories through the eyes of the central character, Li’l Bit, a bright young girl who recognized at an early age the dysfunction of her family, and her unwilling position in it.
With the use of driving instruction voice-overs serving as a prelude to each new scene, the story jumps around during the coming of age of Lil Bit in the 1960’s, an era where fast cars and fast women were the only things on every normal adolescent boy’s mind. The problem for Li’l Bit is that the boy interested in her is no boy, but her charming, southern, seductive Uncle Peck. We meet Li’l Bit at the top of the play as a mature young woman, and take a ride back to her early teens, (pardon the pun), through adolescence, her college years, and back to a young teen where we learn how the trouble begins. Peck’s metaphoric driving lessons lure young naïve Li’l Bit into his web that will entangle her for many years to come, robbing her of a normal adolescence and healthy outlook of the opposite sex. Vogel’s memory sequences dance around the inevitable event that we as the audience dread, yet cannot possibly avoid, nor do we want to. Vogel’s antagonist Peck is such a complex combination of charm, grave vulnerability, and pathology that he cannot be seen simply as a monster. Li’l Bit wrestles with that complexity throughout her young life, turning to alcohol rather than admitting his manipulation.
Director Shawn Kairschner’s clever use of video images of classic cars of the era really lent to the nostalgic mood of the piece. His use of music, film clips and imagery transported me back to the time of American Graffiti, a pre-Vietnam time when America was still about patriotism and purity, again a metaphoric thin veil covering the true darkness of human nature. Efficient set changes moved the show along nicely. The set of an endless paved road that continued upstage may have been an obvious allusion to the main character’s journey, but it was perfectly appropriate.
Ahren Potratz’s portrayal of Uncle Peck was masterful. He was both chilling and sympathetic, evoking hatred from audience members who couldn’t take their eyes off him. Victoria Rose Bonito’s Li’l Bit was tender, earthy, vulnerable and heroic. Bravo to Bonito and her director Kairschner. The details were not missed in every stage of her memories. Her resonant voice and mature mannerisms instantly identified her older age, and the silly, high-pitched frenetic teen was spot on, and every age in between. The chemistry between Potratz and Bonito was perfect; for such difficult subject matter, they craftily told this sick and touching story.
The Greek Chorus was fittingly supportive. Seth Schmitt-Halls most notable of multiple chorus roles was the dysfunctional patriarch. Jen Jaynes and Lizzy Pecora both aptly played their various roles with great detail in the acting.
Vogel’s story does wrap up a little too conveniently for me, admittedly. Though not surprised by Peck’s demise, I didn’t quite know how Li’l Bit came to her place of forgiveness of her sordid Uncle. I would have liked Vogel to reveal how her hero survived. I believe anyone who truly relates to this subject matter would probably want to know as well. But there’s a reason Vogel’s play won the 1997 Pulitzer – it’s both a touching story of survival and a stomach-knotting exploration of the ugly side of humanity.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
by Paula Vogel
Directed by Shawn Kairschner
September 25 – October 7, 2012
Vasey Hall 5
Villanova, PA 19085