Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux
Incest and pedophilia have to be two of the most taboo subjects in western culture, and no one would think that they are funny, but humor probably is the only way one can discuss such things. In any case, both subjects are front and center in Paula Vogel’s powerful–and often very funny–Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, playing now in a stellar production from The Artistic Home. Through the 90-minute length of this show, audience members will find themselves laughing at the central family as they are shocked by the things they are seeing and hearing about.
The play shows us the life of a girl her family calls “Li’l Bit” from 11 years old to 18, with occasional glimpses into her adulthood, and the ongoing relationship she has with her uncle, whom her family calls Peck. Though he is not blood-related, he is a man she views as a substitute father, hers being gone, and his actions throughout the play are often painful to watch. We can see in him almost a classic pedophile: a predator who takes whatever he needs and tries to justify it both to himself and his victim, in this case his young niece.
Li’l Bit doesn’t really have much chance: not only does she have to deal with Uncle Peck, but also with a vile family in rural Maryland. Her grandfather (“Big Pop”) makes insistent and ugly remarks about her growing sexuality, wondering at one point why she even wants to go to college: “What good will Shakespeare do you on your back in the dark?” Her disgust for this man runs deep (“I hate him!”), but when it comes to her mother, her Aunt Mary, and her grandmother–who are not much better–she has much more patience. There are very funny scenes among these women frankly discussing with the teenage L’il Bit things like sex and boys and being ogled. Mom professes that there is nothing wrong with boys wanting to watch her “jiggle”; of course this is the same mom who gives her lots of blunt advice about how to get drunk without getting sloppy.
Kayla Adams directs this show, pulling excellent (if sometimes hard to watch) performances from her small cast and moving them briskly through the various scenes. Scene changes happen a vista during the transitions into the next scene, so there is never a pause in the action. Of course, this is aided by a minimalistic, versatile set by Kevin Rolfs and fine lighting design by Mark Bracken. Sound design is by Zack Berinstein, whose original music evokes several different eras.
Since three “chorus” members (Reid Coker, Kelley Holcomb, and Jenna Steege) play multiple parts during the production, Hailey Rakowiecki’s strong costume work is necessary to distinguish them quickly. Coker, Holcomb and Steege are wonderful. Steege’s turn as L’il Bit’s mother is at times simply hilarious even if it might make you cringe. Coker shines as the horrible Big Pop as well as in other roles, including a very wary waiter. Holcomb, who plays Grandma, also has a powerful turn as Li’l Bit at age 11. All three are very strong performers and there is considerable variety among the minor characters.
But it is the major characters, L’il Bit (Elizabeth Birnkrant) and Peck (John Mossman) who are the central focus of this play. Unlike the others, their characters are very serious. Birnkrant shines as a woman looking back to the childhood that forever messed her up. (We see one scene in which it is clear that the proclivity to seek sexual solace in younger people has infested her life as well as Peck’s.) Her sexual awakening, complicated by her uncle’s unacceptable desires, plays out over several out of sequence scenes, providing even more profound discomfort to the scenes with her younger self than any chronological reading would have created. Birnkrant plays the razor edge between wanting what is happening and knowing it is wrong in every scene, and we are left wishing that somehow we could walk into her life and stop this from happening. Her mother certainly won’t help: when eleven-year-old Lil Bit innocently cajoles her into letting her beloved uncle take her on a long drive, mother (who has seen the way he is around her) allows it but says, “If anything happens, I blame you,” as if placing the blame on the child somehow makes it all OK.
Mossman is scarily gentle as Peck: he plays him as a man who comes across as completely normal next to his bizarre relatives, yet he harbors this deep-seated desire for his young niece. “I’ve loved you since the day you were born, when I held you in my hand,” he says creepily at one point in an effort to convince her that she should be with him, but the statement itself is shocking coming from a man who seems entirely sincere. Mossman plays him as someone who simply doesn’t allow himself to become aware that what he is trying to do is utterly wrong, and he is brilliant. If you didn’t know what was on his mind, you might even like him for the “help” he is with L’il Bit.
Vogel’s script here, with its time-bending and its drivers’ education motifs, is about as perfect a way to address this subject as you can imagine. Watching it, one can tell why it so impressed in 1998. Sadly, it has a kind of a timeless quality that will probably make it continue to be relevant for a long, long time. This powerful production serves as a reminder of just how little most of us understand about those who perpetrate such crimes. L’il Bit wonders at the end about her uncle: “Who did this to you?” It is a crime that perpetuates itself because of the mess it leaves behind, and The Artistic Home has brought it to light in this uncomfortable but important production.
How I Learned to Drive is a production by The Artistic Home now playing at 1376 W. Grand Ave in Chicago, until May 6. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from The Artistic Home. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.