Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE has earned a Boston Theater Critic’s Pick and rattled me to my core. This is one of the very best productions I have seen all year. Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is brilliantly structured, slowly but surely gathering momentum as it takes us back to the specific moments in a young girl’s life that will change her forever. Elaine Vaan Hogue’s incisive direction and this incandescent cast instantly ushered me through a portal and into a world of memory, along with a road map through some of the thornier issues the flesh is heir to. I left the theater as if waking from a dream.
The play is hung on a metaphor which drives us to the heart of a trauma. The road is circuitous, the time out of order, and begins as a woman flashes back to a warm summer evening in 1969, in the middle of rural Maryland, and in the middle of her life when she was 17 and still called by her nickname “Li’l Bit “(Jennifer Rohn). She’s in the middle of a driving lesson from her Uncle Peck (Dennis Trainor Jr.). It’s clear from their interaction they have a complicated relationship and history which the play will unravel in discrete scenes that skip back and forth in time. Layer upon layer is added, context and detail, until every nuance is fleshed out. In this family, folks are nicknamed for their genitalia, crude, teasing jokes are spat out over dinner, and boundaries barely register. It’s a culture which breeds incest.
As Uncle Peck teaches and talks about driving a car along with his special feelings for his niece, we are watching the way a groomer grooms a vulnerable young person, in soft, wheedling, almost poetic language which is transparently seductive; his modus operandi is clear. We also understand that Li’l Bit doesn’t see the gears in motion, but she feels them and we watch her squirm as she tries to reconcile her shame and fear with her loving feelings for an uncle who has filled a need in her fatherless life. Dennis Trainor Jr. delivers something just short of smarmy, a subtle balance of surface warmth, and wounded humanity. He is smooth and seamless as he manipulates Li’l Bit– and also, in a revelatory detour– her cousin Bobby whom we don’t see, but whom Uncle Peck takes fishing. He knows when to advance, when to retreat, holding his prey suspended until the time is right to take what he wants.
Jennifer Rohn’s performance poses an even bigger challenge as she navigates Li’l Bit at various stages of her life and development: as a teenager, a young adult, an adult in her 30’s, a 13 year-old adolescent, and finally all the way back to those fateful moments when her 11 year-old self is rent. Rohn meticulously calibrates these changes while preserving a consistent through line linking all the bits of a shattered persona. We see the fear, guilt, sexual confusion, addictive behaviors struggling against the love and longing Li’l Bit feels for her predator. It’s a subtle, mesmerizing performance that explodes in a triumphant bid for freedom and wholeness in the play’s final moments.
A fine ensemble plays all the extended family members as a Male and Female Greek chorus. They are more sparely sketched in, sometimes verging on caricature, thus providing comic relief from the pain of what is happening around them. But they take on their most important role in the last minutes of the play when they –not Li’l Bit–speak her dialogue apart from the action while she is being molested for the first time. The dissociation experienced by Lil’ Bit is thus brilliantly dramatized, and suddenly it’s clear that the journey to reconnect with her core self is where “How I Learned to Drive” has been leading us.
The production does all of this with a great economy of means: four chairs and a table, plus a stool and a bed when called for. Most important of all, the play and this production never lose sight of the humanity of these characters, their dignity intact despite the intimacy of the situations dramatized. I cannot recommend this production highly enough. Be prepared.