By Kay Kipling
Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, now onstage in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production in the Cook Theatre, may seem fairly-low key at the outset. But in its memory trip back and forth in time for the main character, Li’l Bit, and her various family members, the play ends up encompassing a wide range of emotions, from humor to compassion to, yes, a little queasiness.
That queasiness comes from the subtle, understated but nonetheless unsettling way the work deals with the relationship between Li’l Bit (Allie Henkel) and her uncle (by marriage), Uncle Peck (Matthew R. Olsen). Coming from a family giving a pubescent girl conflicting messages about sexuality and her future ambitions, Li’l Bit is smart, confused about her new body, and vulnerable to an uncle who, in teaching the teenager to drive, also ends up molesting her over a period of several years.
That molestation is not shown overtly, and since we see the adult Li’l Bit looking back on that period, we know she survived intact, albeit with a lot of damage. But it’s nonetheless hard to watch sometimes as Peck (who has his own issues, including a drinking problem and bad war memories) maneuvers his way into her mind, heart and body. Our feelings about what he’s doing are more complicated than you might think, because, in his own way, he genuinely cares for her. If he’s a pedophile, Peck is a patient, polite one, who may be deceiving himself as much as anyone else about his actions. But then perhaps that’s what all pedophiles do?
In any case, you do feel something for Peck as well as for Li’l Bit, even as he creeps you out while taking sexy pictures of his 13-year-old niece. But Vogel doesn’t overload us with nasty images to take away from the evening. Thanks to some funny bits (many courtesy of the play’s Greek chorus members—Andrea Adnoff, Gracie Lee Brown and Paul Herbig—who range from Li’l Bit’s mother, aunt and grandparents to a snooty waiter and a height-challenged teenage boy), what we might otherwise feel too horrific is leavened, and we gain insight and understanding into how the two lead characters got where they are.
How I Learned to Drive is simply but effectively staged by Jesse Jou, using road signs, chairs and desks to represent various locales and situations. And Henkel and Olsen work convincingly together as Vogel’s shifts in time eventually show us the whole, devastating story, and leave us with a question at the end that L’il Bit asks herself—and us.
How I Learned to Drive continues through March 9; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.