How to Safely Tell an Uncomfortable Story
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Produced by: The Conciliation Lab
At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219
Performances: March 11-26, 2022
Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $15 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)
Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/
NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office and masks must be worn while at the theater.
The title of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, is a metaphor for a story so complex that it defies stereotypes. Vogel presents people not as good or bad, victim or victimizer, but as multi-layered and flawed humans. The play is more layered – and even stickier – than a baklava (Greek pastry), and Vogel chose to tell the story in non-chronological order, making it seem even more realistic as the scenes bombard the audience in much the same way as our own memories might arise from the murky depths of an unsuccessfully buried past.
The primary characters in this fractured and dysfunctional family tale are Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, her maternal aunt’s husband. It says a lot about the nature of this family unit that nicknames are derived from genitalia. The grandfather is Big Papa. Her little cousin is BB for Blue Balls, and her mother is referred to as the Titless Wonder. Li’l Bit, who is never identified by her real name, presented with petite genitalia at birth, and the name stuck, although from her teen years onward she is mercilessly bullied and teased by family and classmates alike for her ample bosom. Uncle Peck is an uncle by marriage, so I don’t think his name is part of this twisted roll call – but he makes up for it in other ways.
Both Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are given stellar performances by Juliana Caycedo and Jeffrey Cole, respectively. These are the kinds of roles that make people look at you sideways when they encounter you in the produce section of the local supermarket. The rest of the cast – family members, classmates – is played by three actors: Bianca Bryan as the Female Greek Chorus, Mahlon Raoufi as the Male Greek Chorus, and Maggie Bavolack as the Teenage Greek Chorus.
The story, narrated mostly by Li’l Bit with the help of the Greek Choruses, is a surrealistically humorous recounting of sexual abuse and survival cloaked in the guise of driving lessons. It is not surprising that Uncle Peck is an alcoholic; he is not the only one either. Li’l Bit also recounts the all too familiar pattern of women in the family who not only turn a blind eye to the abuse, but also blame the child for being seductive. Aunt Mary, Uncle Peck’s wife, blames Li’l Bit for her husband’s pedophilia (and incest?), waiting for Li’l Bit to go away to college so she can rekindle her marriage. Li’l Bit’s own mother reluctantly allows her daughter to go on a long drive to the beach with Uncle Peck, warning her that she will hold Li’l Bit – a child – responsible if anything happens. There are so many outrageous scenes like this, many of which may trigger memories in audience members as well as cast and staff, that it seems each performance should be followed by a talk-back with a therapist on hand.
How I Learned to Drive is so well performed and so well directed by Chelsea Burke that is should be required viewing. Caycedo is vulnerable and resilient. It is undoubtedly exhausting to play the role of Li’l Bit – especially knowing that there are thousands of Li’l Bits out there still fighting to survive. Cole presents as a really creepy guy, even as the role sometimes calls for him to present as a caring adult. He comforts Li’l Bit when she flees a family dinner, broken by the teasing about her large breasts and the family’s refusal to acknowledge her dreams of going to college. Who needs a college degree to lay on their back? That’s Big Papa’s perspective. Uncle Peck celebrates with her when she passes her driving test on the first try; but he also inappropriately plies her with martinis and oysters. What the hell is the matter with this man? The conflict is brought to the forefront when, at one point, Li’l Bit wisely wonders if someone had groomed or molested him when he was a child.
We applaud Li’l Bit’s survival and her ability to leave Uncle Peck behind, a diminishing image in her rear view mirror. At the same time, we weep for those who are still learning how to drive.
When I attended the Sunday matinee was followed by a talk back with members of the current cast and crew and members of the cast and crew of the 1998 performance, including cast members Gordon Bass and J.B. Steinberg and lighting designer Steve Koehler. The sharing was accompanied by memories and a few tears. Both were needed.
At the time of publication, there are only two more opportunities to see this run of How I Learned to Drive. If you can find a way to get there, run!
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
by Paula Vogel
Directed by Chelsea Burke
Lil Bit…………………………………Juliana Caycedo
Female Greek Chorus…………….Bianca Bryan
Male Greek Chorus…………..…Mahlon Raoufi
Teenage Greek Chorus……..Maggie Bavolack
Direction: Chelsea Burke
Scenic Design: Alyssa Sutherland
Projections Design: Dasia Gregg
Lighting Design: Deryn Gabor
Costume Design: Maggie McGrann
Sound Design: Candace Hudert
Properties Design: Kathy Kreutzer
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Scenic Painters: Faith Carlson, Alyssa Sutherland
Assistant Stage Management: Leica Long
Associate Direction: Nadia Harika
Dramaturgy & Intimacy Direction: Stephanie “Tippi” Hart
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Friday, March 11 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, March 12 at 8pm – Opening Night
Thursday, March 17 at 8pm – Student Night
Friday, March 18 at 8pm
Saturday, March 19 at 8pm
Sunday, March 20 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, March 22 at 8pm – Community Partner Night
Friday, March 25 at 8pm
Saturday, March 26 at 8pm – Closing Night
Photos by Tom Topinka
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution to support RVArt Review is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.Donate HEREDonate HEREDonate HERE