Theatre review: How I Learned To Drive

by **

Dear Dad

We may feel we have heard and read enough about pedophilia, especially of late, to last us a lifetime. Yet here is a revival of a 1997 award-winning play by American playwright Paula Vogel that again explores this disturbing subject. But rather than adopting a blunt judgement-driven approach, Mockingbird Theatre’s staging of How I Learned To Drive handles the issue with tremendous sensitivity, control, and finesse.

Central to the action is Li’l Bit, now a 35-year-old woman, recollecting her relationship with an Uncle Peck from whom she learned how to drive. Narrating this 100-minute one-act play, she takes us on a wildly emotional ride as she tosses us back and forth through various aspects of her memory play.

She was all but 11 years old when her uncle (by marriage) made her sit on his lap in the driver’s seat and dug his hands into her breasts. She never exposed his iniquities. His advances lasted for years.

Vogel first shows us how manipulative an offender can be when Uncle Peck repeatedly assures his niece he “would not do anything she didn’t want”, thereby sowing the seed of complicity — and hence imposing self-enforced silence — in the young girl’s mind.

But when the narrative unfolds to reveal how he is always there as her confidante in a less-than-nurturing family environment — and she, his — one starts to (reluctantly) question a black and white moralistic stance.

Under Chris Baldock’s elegant direction, the staging is in keeping with this dilemma, subtly shaping in a palpable tension between desire and discomfort during Li’l Bit’s times alone with Uncle Peck as she progresses through her teenage years.

Nevertheless, the predatory character of Peck, played by Jason Cavanagh, is never far from that: predatory. A fishing scene with a young nephew quickly reinforces our initial opinion of him although Cavanagh is utterly adept in shifting into and out of the avuncular, the machiavellian, the troubled, obsessed, and wasted.

His character’s background as a traumatised returned war Marine and his subsequent marriage proposal to Li’l Bit only intensify our struggle to grasp his motivations.

It is Sarah Reuben’s Li’l Bit, however, that captivates and steals the show. From the carefree, innocent adolescent offering conversation as solace to her distressed uncle, to the inebriated teenager, the tormented 18-year old, then the world-weary adult, Li’l Bit’s every emotion is carved onto Reuben’s face and every anguish pours from her dark eloquent eyes.

Whether the set conjures Maryland in the 1960s is arguable, but the occasional analogy with car and traffic symbols projected by voice or on a giant screen towards the back of the stage is an unfortunate distraction, and sometimes detracts from the riveting drama unfurling in front of it.

Baldock’s renown choreography and the timeliness of the other cast as family and members of the Greek chorus, however, are indubitably effective in demonstrating how the abuse later goes into fashioning Li’l Bit’s attitudes towards prospective relationships in her young adult life.

But the final grace of this often poetic, often hilarious piece of theatre is found in Li’l Bit’s attempts as a grown woman to understand what drove her uncle’s actions, and in how she ultimately found it within herself to forgive him, however much he haunts her life, her memories, and her freedom.

A tender moving staging of an exceptional play.