How I Learned to Drive

Look at me," Uncle Peck pleads to his young niece, the narrator-protagonist of How I Learned to Drive. "Listen to me." And that's just what she does. Deeply and over a period of years, she ponders her relationship with the uncle who first molested her when she was eleven, a relationship that destroyed his own life and forever damaged hers. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning script is yet another tale of sexual abuse remembered, but it is told with depth and nuance. The play explores social and historical as well as familial and psychological terrain, revealing the myriad confusions and complexities inherent in sexual relationships. Uncle Peck isn't just an exploiter — though he certainly is both that and a master manipulater. He is also a sad, lonely man, an ex-marine drinking heavily to cope with war memories, a sensual and imaginative human being who, like his victim, both believes in the conventions of the deep South where he grew up and finds himself strangled by them.

The narrator, salaciously nicknamed L'il Bit by her sex-obsessed grandparents, has grown up with very little in the way of teaching or nurturance, though her mother shows her occasional kindnesses. The one adult who's unfailingly present and attentive — who held her in his hands moments after her birth, gave her first driving lesson, tells her she's beautiful, offers fatherly advice and listens to her adolescent concerns — is Uncle Peck. How I Learned to Drive is a love story — and a deeply unsettling one. Its genius lies in the way it explodes all our tidy little generalizations and seduces us into empathizing with the victimizer as well as the victim.

There's a charming scene in which Uncle Peck teaches a small boy how to fish — "reel and jerk...reel and rest" — and even releases the catch in response to the child's tears. It takes a few moments for the nauseating realization to dawn that he is also reeling in the boy. In a heart-wrenchingly understated performance, Paul Borrillo makes Uncle Peck affable, ordinary and profoundly creepy. L'il Bit sometimes enjoys her power over this man and is sometimes repelled by him. C. Kelly Leo is very good at showing the child's incomprehension, the teenager's muddled, desperate attempts to understand what's happening to her, and the adult's mixture of anger and pity; she gives this role real emotional depth.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, but Vogel's script is not. She moves backward and forward in time, punctuates the scenes with phrases from a driving manual, uses deliberate stereotypes, periodically allows the action to veer from deadly serious to almost farcical. Director Chip Walton perhaps over-emphasizes the cartoonish aspects of L'il Bit's family; the grandmother, otherwise effectively played by Melanie Owen Padilla, is topped by a wig so like the one Vicki Lawrence wore in Mama's Family that I half expected her to summon Carol Burnett with a shrieked "Eunice!" But in all other respects, this is a first-rate production, with excellent support work from Padilla, Michael Morgan in several smaller parts and the wondrously vital Denise Perry-Olson. There's also a clean, clever set by Richard Finkelstein and excellent sound courtesy of Brian Freeland.

The reprise of How I Learned to Drive opens Curious Theatre Company's tenth season, and it's been a great ride so far. Walton selects his repertoire not by holding up a finger to see how the wind is blowing, but on the basis of a play's literary and intellectual merits, showing a rare ability to balance the artistic and practical ends of the spectrum. He's created fruitful alliances with several playwrights — most prominently Vogel, whose The Long Christmas Ride Home and The Mineola Twins have also been produced here, and Joan Holden of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He has tackled political issues — for example, Holden's Nickel and Dimed, an exploration of the plight of low-wage workers based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book, and War:An Anthology, an ambitious project whose reach exceeded its grasp. And at a time when those questioning administration policies were being shouted down as traitors, Curious mounted a reminder of the importance of free speech: Trumbo, Red, White and Blacklisted, performed by the estimable and now-much-missed Jamie Horton.

I have spent some memorable evenings at this theater. My first was at the opening of Coyote on a Fence, a chilling evocation of prejudice, hatred and what it means to be human that premiered a few days after September 11; that evening provided a sense of affirmation, comfort and coming together in a deeply troubling time. Then there was the magical Cloud Tectonics, a play that felt like a kind of out-of-body, out-of-time experience. Steven Dietz's Inventing Van Gogh featured electric performances by Brett Aune, Christopher Reid and Chris Leo, and filled the mind with glorious, moving images. Equally inspiring was the form-busting TempOdyssey, by Dan Dietz (no relation to Steven). And who but Walton would have had the guts to give Edward Albee's The Goat — a play about a man in love with a barnyard beast — a straightforward, unapologetic production? Directed by Nagle Jackson, The Goat starred the luminously intelligent and sadly under-utilized Mare Trevathan, another of the city's major talents. (Trevathan worked as Curious's publicist for a while, and I could never understand why she was in the lobby greeting me on opening nights instead of preparing to go on stage.) Although there have been some Curious duds over the years — the occasional banal script or major piece of miscasting — they're more than balanced out by this marvelous theater's contribution to our city.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman