The road signs are blurry but the way is clear in the New Theatre's intimate production of How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that's wrapped up in automobile metaphors. Set in rural Maryland and unfolding over three decades, the play tells the story of a girl, nicknamed Li'l Bit, who grows up amid conflicting signs and symbols, directions that don't make sense, and driving instructions that are at times both gratuitous and sinister. When the subject is incest, the command "yield" takes on more than one meaning.
In Drive we see through flashbacks how Li'l Bit learns to navigate the roads from her Uncle Peck, the man with whom she also had her first sexual experiences. (Peck, a diminished moody alcoholic who abuses his niece's trust, is one of the most aptly named characters to come down the pike.) The drama is assuredly about the sexual abuse of a young woman, but it's not strictly about victimization. Nor is it a modern-day Rashomon. We may hear Peck's assertion that "we're just enjoying each other's company," but we're meant to agree with Li'l Bit that her truth is the one that matters. Vogel's genius lies in her ability to draw Peck as someone both compassionate and evil.
The New Theatre production, directed with mixed success by Roberto Prestigiacomo, marks the second time this year Vogel's work has tooled through here, tailgating the superb Caldwell Theatre version that arrived in March. There's not much room for cars (even those suggested on stage by two chairs placed side by side) to maneuver on the New Theatre's postage-stamp stage. Gerardo Gonzalez-Quevedo's set design, consisting of badly painted road signs (perhaps intended to look rain-splashed), is the least satisfying of any set I've seen at New Theatre, which tends to have excellent production values.
Nonetheless Pamela Roza and Matthew Wright both give performances that are palpably urgent, fully fleshed out but cozy enough to fit into this small space. Roza in particular gives a lovely and courageous performance in her two-tiered role as Li'l Bit: the grown-up narrator, for which she infuses the heroine's story with a bitter nostalgia, and the maturing girl, which requires a steadfast realness. As Peck, Wright has the difficult task of making a monster likable. He pulls this off with keen dexterity. Vogel's important themes come out through Roza's and Wright's intricate portrayals. The playwright is not merely telling a story about one girl's life; she's raising major questions about the nature of love.
Though it suffers in comparison to high-tech productions, this version offers in-your-face exposure to a play that is astoundingly raw. "I live all week for these few minutes alone with you," confesses Uncle Peck, referring to the outings he and Li'l Bit go on each weekend. But this play, fortunately, doesn't fall into easy and simple clichés: Uncle Peck is a molester, but both the wounded Li'l Bit and the audience are led to the understanding that he too is a scarred human being. As for Li'l Bit, she may one day escape the clutches of her family, the rest of whom are collectively every bit as damaging as Uncle Peck, but she's not untouched by the experience. Recalling the first time Peck fondled her, as she rode on his lap, her legs not yet long enough to reach the gas pedal, Li'l Bit says, "That day was the last day I lived in my body. I retreated above the neck and live in the fire in my head."
Unlike the narrator in The Glass Menagerie (the grandfather of the American memory play), the grown-up Li'l Bit doesn't fade into the background once the action gets going. Vogel's version of the genre is a guided tour. Along with solo commentary by the heroine and scenes that show us Peck and Li'l Bit in the car, the stage is also visited by a Greek chorus (Kimberly Daniel, Tanya Bravo, and David Bugher). Their multiple responsibilities include breaking out to speak the thoughts of auxiliary characters (Peck's wife, Aunt Mary; Li'l Bit's mother and grandmother; kids at school entranced by Li'l Bit's burgeoning chest). At other times they recite epigrams from various educational manuals.
Vogel has woven several strains of humor and satire into the fabric of the play, giving us both comic relief and important clues to what pulls Peck and Li'l Bit toward each other. Amid this gaggle of Southern grotesques, these two seem to be the only normal people around. Given a choice between her obnoxious grandfather and her Uncle Peck, anyone might pick the war veteran who married Aunt Mary. In one of the most trenchant scenes, Li'l Bit sits around a kitchen table with her extended family, discussing her future. Grandpa ridicules Li'l Bit's college plans, noting that she won't need Shakespeare "to lie on her back in the dark." Li'l Bit's retort? "You're old and you're gonna die soon."
These secondary characters fill Li'l Bit's world with a variety of misguided sexual information and, in better productions, serve to show off the finesse of the cast. Here only veteran Kimberly Daniel rises above the sloppy delivery and bad timing that Prestigiacomo accepts from the rest of the chorus. These small moments are supposed to be caricatures not cartoons, but you'd never know it watching Tanya Bravo play Li'l Bit's grandmother as though she were a citizen of Dogpatch. David Bugher, who plays the male chorus characters as well as crusty old Grandpa, is simply unremarkable. Unfortunately Prestigiacomo hasn't been able to pull together the discordant threads of this work, so that next to the auxiliary players, Roza and Wright seem to be in a different production altogether. It's a shame, because the beauty of Drive lies as much in its juxtaposition of radically different moods as in its subject matter.
Vogel is one of the more interesting characters blowing life into American theater these days, a welcome respite from the Sams and Davids and Williams, whose works -- while often well-wrought and compelling -- are performed ad nauseum, particularly by small theaters. I'd trade every production of True West I've seen in the last decade for a chance to see even five minutes of Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, in which Vogel turns Othello on its head, partly by making Desdemona into the very thing her paranoid husband feared she was -- a whore. Vogel offers a woman's view of the world, of course, but she also holds my interest because of the chances she takes with form and content, no matter what the result.
Her 1992 Obie-winning The Baltimore Waltz, while utterly fascinating, is nearly impossible to stage. (A dream play about a woman whose brother is dying from a mysterious illness, it was one of the first works in any artistic genre to address the AIDS crisis.) Her recent play The Mineola Twins, about four decades in the lives of sisters who hate each other, received mixed reviews when it opened in New York earlier this year. Failures aside, Vogel forges ahead looking for new ways to tell new stories, no matter how many dead ends and wrong turns she encounters along the way. Without her intrepid explorations, the rest of us would still be stuck in the slow lane.
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