Few things are harder to describe than childhood molestation, but Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning controversial play How I Learned to Drive, now on stage at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theater, does just that. Set in Maryland largely during the '60s, this 90-minute dark comedy moves in flashbacks and flash-forwards through the life of a local girl named L'il Bit played by the fiercely talented Lindsay Ryan from age 11 through 40-something. The young woman chillingly narrates the years of sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her much older Uncle Peck (Alex Kaplan) as he taught her to drive. But the duo is as unstereotypical as the protagonists of Nabokov's Lolita, the tale the playwright credits as her inspiration. And what elevates Vogel's script above countless others is its refusal to reduce the central characters to helpless victims or evil villains. Instead, Vogel cunningly parallels the trauma associated with L'il Bit's coming of age with the often-unexpected dangers of operating an automobile. She expertly weaves harrowing and traumatic scenes of pedophilia with genuinely comical, lighthearted interludes. Ultimately, the central character struggles to take control of her body, a notion cleverly driven home by the final section of this rite-of-passage story. Supporting the central character's memories of home, school, and car are six players whom Vogel identifies as male chorus, female chorus, and teenage chorus. The troupe peppers the production with harmonious a cappella numbers that provide a subtle soundtrack to this hauntingly humorous tale. The impact of How I Learned to Drive on audience emotion is thunderous and makes this a tale likely to remain with spectators well after the curtain falls. (Through February 26 at the Jerry Herman Ring Theater, University of Miami, 1312 Miller Dr., Coral Gables. Call 305-284-3355, or visit www.miami.edu/ring.)
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men: Some things mature with age; others don't. Almost 40 years after Ceremonies premiered off-Broadway, it still offers a powerfully rich portrayal of a disenfranchised African-American family in crisis. But it also projects such a clichéd, outdated, and stereotypical image of black men that it begs the question: What do we gain from its revival? The play is set in a dingy barbershop in Harlem during the 1950s. The cast is led by the gregarious Jerry Maple Jr. as patriarch Russell Parker. While the jobless, aging father daydreams about his lost youth, his two no-account sons thieve and loaf. Daughter Adele the lone female and provider toils in a dead-end office job. The men's struggle for survival ultimately leads them to bootlegging and racketeering. Although the entertaining players shift with polished ease between the intense narrative and hilariously comical interludes, the tragedy that befalls the troupe falls oddly flat. (Through March 12 at M Ensemble, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami. Call 305-895-0335, or visit www.themensemble.com.)
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Cradle of Man: With intelligent design worming its way through academia, we could really use a good evolution play that looks at the natural history of man. But even with its promising title, Melanie Marnich's Cradle of Man isn't it. Instead, in a Tanzanian hotel, two American couples cross paths in a tiresome evening of Love Boat-style adultery. Is an intriguing science-versus-religion debate in store? Nope. Cradle of Man uses scientific metaphors to talk ponderously about love and infidelity. It is clunky, with lots of misspent and misconceived emotion that makes you lose faith in its navigation long before it ends. (Through March 5 at Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Call 561-585-3433.)