Paula Vogel's greatest virtue as a playwright lies in tackling sensitive and serious issues with humor, intelligence, and a firm refusal to reduce their complexities into tidy, little moralities.
How I Learned to Drive
Intiman Theater till August 16
In The Baltimore Waltz, her emotional response to her brother's death from AIDS became a quirky fantasia in which she had contracted a fatal disease and her brother sought a cure as she set out to sleep with half the men in Europe. In Hot and Throbbing, the loaded issue of spousal abuse was centered on the story of a woman writer of erotic fiction, whose sexual fantasies, complete with overheated language and choreographed writhing, offered an ironic contrast to her own struggles to escape an abusive husband and hold her fragile family together.
Now comes How I Learned to Drive, which deals with what are perhaps the most heated of hot-button issues, incest and sexual abuse. The most lauded of Vogel's plays, Drive has gained her an Obie, a New York Drama Critics Circle, and the 1998 Pulitzer. It's that Pulitzer, of course, that raises the critical bar. This play can't get away with just being really good. It should be great.
Vogel describes the play as a "response to Nabokov's Lolita," told from the point of view of the girl. It's the story of Li'l Bit, a precocious girl growing up in rural Maryland in the 1960s. (Mary Mara's intelligence and husky sensuality are a great aid in this immensely difficult role.) Li'l Bit's relatives aren't exactly sophisticates; their idea of dinnertime banter is a crude sexual teasing that's strictly single-entendre.
The only person who offers Li'l Bit some relief from the sophomoric shenanigans of the rest of her family is her Uncle Peck (Brian Kerwin, who gives a performance all the more stunning for its understated charm). He takes her fishing, spends afternoons talking with her, and over the course of several years teaches her how to drive. The irony, of course, is that Peck is also her molester. While he's teaching her about cars, he's involved in an equally intensive drive to instruct her in sex.
Despite the clear iniquity of the situation, there's more going on here than rape. Peck repeatedly asserts that he won't do anything to his niece that she doesn't want him to do, and Li'l Bit seems to have some control over how far she'll allow him to go. There's an actual love between the two as well. In a remarkable scene late in the play, the 13-year-old girl approaches the contrite and tormented middle-aged man as he washes dishes in the kitchen. She's concerned about his drinking and offers to continue seeing him if it means he'll stop. This act of self-sacrifice lays bare the complex interplay of love, desire, and sexual awareness that lies beneath such a relationship.
Vogel's success, happily, hasn't led her to abandon theatricality. She still loves all those quirky tricks that you can pull off only on a stage, such as extensive restructuring of the narrative time scheme and transforming a family argument into a doo-wop musical number. Vogel manages, in the main, to navigate her tightrope of choice—but at the cost of making her occasional missteps all the more notable. At times, for example, Li'l Bit's precocity ill-suits her age; in some moments, such as when she's berating her mother, the 11-year-old sounds older than the present-day adult narrator.
In the play's final scenes, Vogel almost completely undoes an immense amount of subtle work by implying that the only explanation for Uncle Peck's behavior is that he himself must have been molested as a child. This may be true—or it may not. Either way, the suggestion erodes the foundation that both the actor and the playwright have carefully built for this complex and fundamentally unknowable personality.
Occasionally the driving/sex parallels become heavy-handed (every flashback is referenced with a comment about "reverse gear"). But mostly, the conceit works. The repeated references to the two seats stage center that represent the driving lesson provide a strong emotional center to the piece. Unfortunately, Andrew Wood Boughton's set design takes the metaphor too literally and includes two huge street signs, along with a steady stream of rear projections featuring slides of cars and pinups.
In the end, there's no question that this is a very good play. But Vogel's humor, stagecraft, and impeccable dialogue aren't quite enough to maneuver through the vast complexities and subtleties of the subject matter. Although I'm loath to say it, this is one play that, at a brief 90 minutes in length, could have used more time to finish its journey.