Far from being just a dirty family secret, incest is the supreme betrayal of familial trust. The unspeakable offense--which often suffocates both victim and perpetrator in a cloak of silent shame and sworn secrecy--invariably rears its ugly head from one generation to another until someone finds the courage, the will and, ultimately, the love to put an end to its cruel domino effect.
But even when a victim completely faces her demons from a relatively objective perspective, it's monumentally difficult to forgive and forget. That's especially true when, as happens in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, an eleven-year-old girl's troubling relationship with her uncle is bound up with the young woman's cherished memories of family get-togethers, holiday celebrations and time-honored rites of passage--such as learning how to drive in his 1956 Chevy, ordering her first alcoholic drink with him or pairing off at a school dance while under his watchful, though not always avuncular, gaze. At times bravely tender and bitingly funny, Curious Theatre Company's production movingly brings to light a problem that, like many taboos, is perpetually in our midst but nearly always hidden.
Or is it? According to the drama's central character, Li'l Bit (C. Kelly Douglass), the origins of her seven-year relationship with her uncle Peck (Paul Borrillo) can, at least in part, be traced to events that occurred while she was growing up in her grossly dysfunctional home. When viewed through the ultra-convex lens of Li'l Bit's frequent backward glances, it's hard to understand how someone--anyone--could not have noticed the bizarre clan's highly inappropriate behavior. During one dinner-table conversation, her grandmother sputters nonsense about sphincter muscles, her grandfather bemoans the fact that Li'l Bit's interest in Shakespeare isn't "going to help her lie on her back in the dark [while having sex]," and all of the other relatives rejoice in having given one another vulgar nicknames that correspond to each family member's genitalia. In their inimitably blunt-force manner, the family tells us that one cousin is called BB, which stands for his chronic condition of "blue balls," and another relative is laughingly--and loudly--referred to as the "titless wonder." Given the daily barrage of disgusting banter that Li'l Bit (whose nickname, like Peck's, is sickeningly self-explanatory) has to endure, it's not hard to understand when, shortly after Grandpa says that someday she'll have to use a wheelbarrow to cart around her sizable breasts, the sensitive girl bolts outside and desperately cries, "I hate this family!"
However, through a series of flashback scenes, it becomes abundantly clear that Vogel's exaggerated rendering of family life isn't just a trendy, quasi-Brechtian way to defuse a touchy subject. On the contrary, as performed by director Chip Walton's excellent cast of actors, the playwright's deliberate distortions are meant to depict the double-edged nature of closeted family behavior. For much of what seems obviously out of place from theatergoers' point of view is, to tragic consequence, accepted as an unalterable reality by Li'l Bit and Peck. And as this eloquent and gripping production reveals, the aftershocks of child molestation often reverberate in unexpected and far-reaching ways.
Li'l Bit, for example, "acts out" her pain by wantonly seducing a callow boy ("This is how the giver gets taken," she says), while Peck eventually retreats into acute alcoholism after his newly emancipated niece gives him a long-overdue heave-ho. Even when both characters finally take off their emotional blinders and confront the awful truth of their warped kinship--a gut-wrenching scene which, appropriately, never results in a complete catharsis for either the characters or the audience--it's next to impossible for Li'l Bit or Peck to view their common past without magnifying distant and fading memories to nightmarish proportions.
As if that weren't enough to shatter spectators' preconceived notions about the nature of incest, the ninety-minute, intermissionless show indicates that there's a significant amount of shared culpability when it comes to the inevitable questions of blame, forgiveness and reconciliation. (Li'l Bit is sometimes a tease while Peck is an otherwise eminently likable man, and their episodes of physical contact typically arise during moments of near-romantic affection and not, as might be expected, calculated carnal desire.) Vogel's overdose of ambiguity notwithstanding, Walton and company manage to emphasize one unmistakable theme, which finds fullest expression in one of Douglass's monologues. Near the end of the play, the incandescent actress stands at the edge of the stage and, as if peering at the ghost of her deceased uncle, heartbreakingly whispers, "Who did it to you? How old were you? Were you eleven?"
Seemingly always in tune with each other's subtlest impulses, Douglass and Borrillo adroitly convey the depth and complexity of their characters' relationship. At times they even elicit audible gasps from audience members simply by moving slightly closer to each other or murmuring this or that phrase in ways that suggest the proverbial line is about to be crossed. They're nicely complemented by a fine supporting cast who between them play over fifteen different roles. In fact, performers Brett Aune, Melanie Owen and Denise Perry imbue their individual characters with carefully selected specific qualities that make each of them instantly identifiable without stooping to the level of caricature or, worse, fright-house charm.
To be sure, some of Walton's broader theatrical brush strokes, such as a few synthesized sound effects and Technicolor-like visuals (which flicker to eerie life on an asymmetrical drive-in marquee that looms center stage behind the front seat of Peck's car) feel a tad intrusive. And the more extreme, cartoonish comic scenes are sometimes lacking in precision and timing. Like the performers' well-executed portrayals, though, the film clips, vintage songs and bald-faced ribaldry collectively evoke the lingering psychological effects of molestation as much as they do the more graphic--and maybe more readily talked about--physical aspects of abuse. As this heroic and poignant production tells us, a family's affection can sometimes be a necessary refuge, occasionally an unlikely comfort and, perhaps more often than anyone realizes, a half-hidden source of deepest suffering and newfound forgiveness.
How I Learned to Drive, presented by Curious Theatre Company and the Acoma Center through May 30 at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524.
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