Emily K. Harrison, artistic director of Square Product Theatre, has always preferred presenting work that’s either original or hasn’t been seen in this area before, but she taught Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive at the University of Colorado and feels a strong connection to this complex, thought-provoking play about sexual molestation, memory, family, driving and — yes — love, and decided to mount it despite Curious Theatre Company’s production eight years ago. Here, Harrison herself plays the central role of Li’l Bit — so named by a salacious family that labels all of its members by their sexual organs.
Li’l Bit, now a grown woman, is remembering her Uncle Peck, the man who began molesting her when she was eleven and continued an intense and ambiguous relationship with her until her eighteenth birthday, when she cut off all contact. Among other things, Vogel is exploring the vagaries of memory — the way it softens some old hurts, exacerbates others, changes the shape and contour of past events — and she uses several dramaturgical devices to do so. The action moves back and forth in time as Li’l Bit tells her story, and scenes follow each other not in chronological order, but as one thought or event evolves organically from another: In one scene, Li’l Bit is approaching puberty, in another she’s seventeen, and later she’s an eleven-year-old child. A driver’s learning manual supplies unity and structure, with a measured, uninflected offstage voice reading directions. Two of the characters — Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit — are naturalistically drawn, while three more actors serve as a Greek chorus and take on multiple roles, including the cartoonishly rural family members that Li’l Bit describes as “crackers.”
Vogel is a strong feminist, but although this play deals with fraught and sexually charged material, it is far from a feminist tract. And while memory is at its center, the script has nothing to do with the fevered debate about recovered memories of sexual abuse that raged some years back and still returns periodically. Li’l Bit’s memories are profound and sometimes contradictory. She half-forgives her uncle while remaining fully aware of the permanent damage he’s done to her. She remembers that, barely out of childhood, she herself sometimes attempted to initiate sexual activity and was gently and lovingly rebuffed by him. She recognizes how deeply he loved her — no matter how corrupt that love. She’s also aware that Uncle Peck was a recovering alcoholic, damaged by what he’d seen as a Marine in combat and perhaps in other ways she never knew. He was also the only person in her narrow world with genuine intelligence, insight and sensitivity; the two of them were able to talk and to alleviate each other’s existential loneliness. In teaching her to drive, Uncle Peck handed her a measure of control and independence that helped her eventually find freedom. All of which may have made his betrayal more terrible.
This production is an odd mix of revelatory and clumsy. The tech is minimal and the sound and lighting a bit fuzzy. The acting veers from very strong to almost amateurish. The family members are cartoonish as written, but with the exception of Haley Johnson, the actors portraying them go way over the top — bending almost in two to indicate age, for example. Johnson has a fine monologue as Uncle Peck’s conventional wife, Mary, charming as she speaks of applying the “balm” of domesticity to her husband’s pain, and becoming more and more creepy as she reveals that she knows what’s going on and entirely blames that cunning manipulator, Li’l Bit. Harrison’s quietly composed Li’l Bit is effective, but she never fully communicates the depth of the girl’s feelings. Mark Collins is a very fine Peck, seeming like everyone’s favorite loving uncle but then showing glints of genuine evil. Maggy Stacy, as the Teenage Greek Chorus, has a wonderful moment near the end of the play, when she serves as the voice of eleven-year-old Li’l Bit: “Uncle Peck, what are you doing?” she says, all simplicity and gleaming innocence. “This isn’t happening.... Please don’t....”
How I Learned to Drive, presented by Square Product Theatre and Goddess Here Productions through November 7 at Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder, and November 12-14 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, 303-444-7328 or go to thedairy.org and buntport.com.