Though I normally review books from small presses on this blog, I do, on occasion, take time to recognize other short-run productions as well–CDs, for example, and now dramatic productions. The reason I’m bending my own rules this week is that I just saw the Montgomery County Community College Drama Club’s production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive and was quite moved by it. The play offers a backward glance at the life of a young girl named Li’l Bit and her efforts at understanding and, eventually, resisting the sexual advances of her uncle, Peck. Heavy material to say the least, but brought to life artfully and with, in places, a light touch.
What really makes How I Learned to Drive a moving piece of drama is that it never stoops to vilifying Uncle Peck or painting him in stark terms. That is, he’s never seen overtly as a monster, and Jeremy Beitler, who portrays the character in the MC3 production, delivers his lines in so soft and appropriately unassuming a manner that the true depths of the character’s flaws emerge only gradually. Even then, he is less obviously a monster than a man haunted by internal demons — a twisted, shameful creature who might honestly believe that what he does he does out of love.
If we take as a given that one strength of fiction and drama is an ability to allow us to recognize some element of ourselves in even the most strange of strangers and thus to identify with those we might otherwise consider our opposites, then How I Learned to Drive is an absolute success. In large part, this is due not only to Beitler’s performance as Uncle Peck but also to Lizz Cook’s portrayal of Li’l Bit. Cook’s first challenge with respect to the role is fairly straightforward: she needs to make the audience not only believe in Li’l Bit but identify with her as well — a task she handles with grace, humor, and wit. Her next challenge, however, is considerably larger: she needs to transfer the audience’s sympathy from Li’l Bit to Uncle Peck. Again, Cook succeeds wonderfully at this, first in a scene about midway through the play in which an adult Bit allows a high school student to “seduce” her, and ultimately in a final soliloquy in which Bit reflects upon everything that drove her uncle to do what he did. In both instances, Bit’s struggle to understand her uncle becomes the audience’s struggle as well — and, as is the case throughout this production — the audience cannot help but feel a small spark of sympathy for Uncle Peck even as we’re disgusted by what he’s done.
In all, the MC3 Drama Club production of How I Learned to Drive is an excellent production, buoyed by the talents of its leads as well as the impeccable acting of its “Greek Chorus” (Sophia Gallo, Alexander John Patrick Lavelle IV, and Nora Algeo). Beautifully staged in MC3’s new black box theater, it’s a must see. Which poses one small problem: the last performance is today at 2PM.