Tuesday, June 12, 2018

“How I Learned to Drive” – One Big Trigger (See it anyway)

Amy Danneker and Frank Boyd in How I Learned to Drive (John Ulman)
How I Learned to Drive
Strawberry Theatre Workshop
Through July 7, 2018

I can, by no means, claim any kind of encyclopedic knowledge of modern plays, but I cannot bring to mind any play that is focused on incest besides How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. There are plays, like August: Osage County, that contain it as a sort of sub-plot (among many), but this play has no other sub-plot, only context. It’s a remarkable play, partly because while it deals with a deeply odious subject matter, it allows an audience to experience it without maudlin lingering in the miasma. There is a sort of “breathing room” for audiences.

Partly that is because Vogel tells the story in a back-and-forth manner through time. Her point is not to wallow in the darkness of human nature, it’s more to instruct those who may not know the “how it happens” aspect – the grooming.
The pr on the piece references the #metoo movement. It mimics what the movement wants to emphasize: #consent. The play demonstrates that consent is completely unavailable to be had in a power imbalance like an adult relative grooming a kid, no matter how many times groomy Uncle Peck says he’ll never do anything Li’l Bit doesn’t consent to.

We’re led, in this smart and beautifully acted piece at Strawberry Theatre Workshop, by a narration through driving lessons. Li’l Bit (Amy Danneker) is taught driving by Uncle Peck (Frank Boyd). Danneker has just the right combination of sexiness, brusk self-assurance, and childlike over-confidence that she balances perfectly with Boyd’s kindly uncle. Boyd makes inappropriate Uncle Peck seem almost appropriate! as he creates a creepy sexual dependency on Li’l Bit, but does that in such small degrees that it feels almost innocent.

The context referred to above is the dysfunctional family atmosphere that also grooms Li’l Bit from birth – a grotesquely over-sexed Grandfather (Marco Adiak Voli), a repressed Grandmother (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) and the single mother incapable of dealing with her own family history (Shanna Allman).

The unsettling portrayal implies that Li’l Bit “allows” it to go on for years (that she is complicit), but the subtle years long grooming process shows that it’s hard for a child to understand how inappropriate it is, and when it feels good, how hard it is to figure out how to stop something. Especially when that “something” may be the only emotional support a child feels.

It also demonstrates the tenacity of the abuser, the mental delusions he might have about this being “love.” In this play, Uncle Peck is so excited about her 18th birthday. It means he can finally declare his “love” and that their love can now be real and open, since it’s legal. Boyd’s earnest delusion and his desperation are so clear here.

We don’t get “driven” backward in time to the initial sexual assault until toward the end, and we know it is looming. This allows us to be a bit more ready to experience it, though the action is not very graphic. Still, the emotional punch is large. Once we have that final piece of history, we can look at what Li’l Bit has told us through the evening and evaluate it forward in terms of its effect on her life and what happens after.

The play cracks open the door to those who have not experienced this human depravity. Warning: they don’t provide tissues – bring your own.

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