Friday, June 01, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

One of the first things that hits you in the first monologue of playwright Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” now at Capital Stage under the tight direction of Janis Stevens, is the quality of the writing. There is a Steinbeck-esque quality to the descriptive passages.

Here on the land the Department of Agriculture owns, the smell of sleeping farm animal is thick in the air. The smells of clover and hay mix with the smells of the leather dashboard …”

It bodes well for what is to come, and the production does not disappoint.

“Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson,” says L’il Bit (Stephanie Gularte), who uses driving instructions as a metaphor for general behavior, and, as the play progresses, to describe sexual abuse at the hands of her “Uncle Peck” (James Hiser).

There are no superlatives strong enough to describe Gularte’s performance. She plays a woman in her middle 30s looking back over her life, and remembering her conflicted emotions around abuse by Uncle Peck, the only person in her family she felt actually understood her. In chameleon-like fashion, Gularte can be 35 or 11 with only the help of a pony tail and a change in the expression on her face. It is a remarkable performance.

Hiser is disturbingly smarmy as the uncle with whom L’il Bit has a convoluted relationship, yet while smarmy, he is also almost likable, as he exudes Southern charm.

L’il Bit is a lonely girl in a dysfunctional family, longing for love from someone, happy with a grown-up who is willing to listen to her, who tells her he loves her, who seems to understand her but, even as a young child, knowing that things were not quite right.

The action goes back and forth, in L’il Bit’s memory, from childhood to adulthood and back again. The girl is aware that she is not entirely innocent in the relationship. She plays her own cards by being consciously seductive, encouraged by her manipulative uncle.

“Nothing is going to happen between us — until you want it to,” he tells her at several stages of her puberty, implying casually that she’ll give in with enough pressure.

He is the adult in all this, a position of power he uses to ensure that something is, in fact, happening between them.

“You’re crossing the line,” L’il Bit will tell Peck when he gets too close and he will back off … but never entirely.

The cast includes Eric Wheeler, Jamie Jones and Melanie Marshall as a kind of Greek Chorus, keeping the action moving and filling in as several other characters, including L’il Bit’s weird family, who offer a surprising amount comedy in this otherwise dark story.

This play gives a complex look at the subject of incest and molestation, the complicated relationship between a young girl and a man she has known and loved all of her life. But her final monologue reveals for all what it is like to be in her situation and what it does to a girl for the rest of her life. It is chilling.

The brilliant writing of Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for this play; the brilliant direction of one of Sacramento’s true gems, Janis Stevens; and an incredibly talented cast at the top of their game make this a play not to be missed.

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