DMV theatre delicately navigates tough topic in Vogel’s play
By STEPHEN PEDERSEN - CHONICLE-HERALD
You won’t learn much about driving, in DMV Theatre Co-op’s production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive. But you won’t feel comfortable watching it.
It’s a play about pedophilia, an erotic love of a young girl’s uncle for his niece. Echoes of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, which inspired Vogel to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, hover over it.
The writing is outstanding — clear, direct, full of irony and observation and faithful to the multiple meanings of its metaphor. As TV reminds us 24-7, cars and trucks and SUVs are sex symbols.
The DMV production, while not exactly what Vogel had in mind, perhaps, is also outstanding. Kate Lavender as the innocent but physically precocious L’il Bit and
Brian Heighton as her Uncle Peck, navigate the thin ice of this topic with a delicate touch. Their performance, and that of their fellow cast members Matthew Thomas Walker, Samantha Wilson and Allison MacDougall, does not allow us to ease our discomfort by dismissing Peck as a nasty pervert.
Vogel achieves this by her use of humour. Humour humanizes. How I Learned To Drive is filled with genuinely funny lines. As we laugh, we grow fond of the characters. Except for the horror of his obsessions, Peck is as sensitive and considerate as a lover can be.
Heighton’s quietly incisive acting accomplishes more than that. We are continually aware in his performance and in the play that his desire is as nasty and perverted as any child-abuser. His consideration for L’il Bit’s youth and innocence lacks context: he only wishes not to frighten or rush her into anything. He wants her consent. But he doesn’t give a second thought to how he is damaging her. At the same time he reels her in like a spider tenderly wrapping a fly.
But, as we watch this situation unfolding, noting the skill of the use of driving lessons as an excuse to advance a furtive love, we are taken in. It is easy to condemn Peck’s actions. But not Peck himself. Though we dislike the feeling, we feel an uncomfortable degree of sympathy.
Lavender’s performance is equally skilful. The narrative point of view is hers. She opens her life to us as though we were her diary. While she becomes increasingly aware that Peck’s interest in her is deeply unwholesome, he is her only friend and ally in coping with her embarrassment at her voluptuousness. The driving lessons are a perfect opportunity to persuade her that her relationship with her uncle is normal.
Yet the skilfulness of Vogel’s writing and Lavender’s acting lies in the ambiguity of her feelings. She loves Peck. But she thinks as long as she holds him at arm’s length, everything will be OK. She is also dimly aware of how seductive this behaviour is. She loves him.
Walker, Wilson and MacDougall play multiple roles. They are listed in the program as Male Greek Chorus, Female Greek Chorus and Teenage Greek Chorus. None of their characters connect with L’il Bit as Peck does. Apart from her driving lessons, she feels isolated. In the end, she gives her heart not to Peck, but to the car. Only in driving down the road does she feel liberated and fulfilled.
Vogel intended for L’il Bit to be older, a woman in her mid-thirties, closer to Peck’s age at the time of the incestuous abuse, looking back at her younger self. But director Pamela Halstead’s decision to cast a young woman in the role adds perspective to the play rather than taking away from it.
Like all fine plays, How I Learned To Drive, given a determined and insightful cast and director as provided by DMV Theatre Co-op, can be presented in a variety of disguises without compromising its true identity.