Photo by Roger Mastroianni

From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li’l Bit) and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck) perform in the Allen Theatre.

 

March 28, 2017

‘How I Learned to Drive’ navigates a bumpy road

In Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, driving a car is a metaphor for life. We learn that it is hard to shift our gears when the clutch is not properly engaged, that our engines stall when not given sufficient momentum, and that it is difficult to steer straight while being sexually assaulted.

This 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama explores the memories of Li’l Bit (Madeleine Lambert) that recount her incestuous encounters with her Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco) while being given driving lessons that started at the age of 11 and continue over the next seven years.

As Li’l Bit looks through the rear-view mirror at her past, the play craftily unfolds in a dream-like non-linear manner, offers memory-distorted and comedic reflections of her dysfunctional family (Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica, and Remy Zaken), and provides bizarre excerpts from a driver’s education manual that describe the impact of Uncle Peck’s on-going sexual advances, such as “You and the Reverse Gear.”

The scenic design by Collette Pollard captures the surrealism of the play’s narrative by presenting a two-lane road in the center of the stage that extends into the fly space, while surrounding projections by Caite Hevner establish a sense of time and place.

Brusasco portrays Uncle Peck with layers of Southern charm that are often laced with subtle manipulation and deception. He is most certainly a monster, but the playwright manages to create some sympathy by giving backstory to his damaged spirit, lost soul and raging alcoholism.

Lambert is incredible as Li’l Bit. She eloquently transforms from innocent preteen in one scene to sarcastic adult in the next. Her investigation into the past is riddled with palpable guilt and self-contempt, crafting a painful exploration that exposes the demons that continue to haunt her. These scenes of raw emotion are devastatingly heart-wrenching and wonderfully performed.

The on-stage exploration of the heavy topic of child molestation is undeniably uncomfortable. Yet this production, under Laura Kepley’s masterful direction, balances the play’s powerful dialogue with bittersweet humor and its surrealism with believable performances.

In short, this production of “How I Learned to Drive” nicely navigates bumpy terrain and makes the journey well worth taking.



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