By Paula Vogel
With Debra Winger, Arliss Howard
Directed by David Wheeler
American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center through October 10  1998

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Paula Vogel's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning play "How I Learned To Drive" is a rather marvelous piece of work, a clever puzzle built with elements of 50's comic book culture using an avant-garde blueprint.   Inside the construction, at its very heart,  is a close encounter with a painful love that, given a choice, most people would probably prefer to avoid experiencing.   All the play's devices work to lead the audience to that encounter, and to identifying with the lovers and their pain. Distancing, humor, intellectual analysis, carefully rearranged chronology, all trap us into an attentive complicity with the incestuous relationship between a lonely fatherless eleven year old girl called Li'l Bit and her kindly Uncle Peck, who has volunteered to teach his niece a number of important lessons-- such as learning how to drive, and learning how to drink, and learning how to love.

This incestuous relationship is set forth with such discretion that Vogel's play can pass under the radar of the sternest of old time censors.  The child victim is represented by a self possessed grown woman, and scenes with "inappropriate touching" are staged in presentational abstraction. There are no images of seductive little girls being molested at the ART-- any such image must be supplied by the prurient imagination of the spectators.  Not least, the perpetrator of pedophelia is severely punished.  Uncle Peck's punishment doesn't come from a blast from Above, or from the secular law, or even from his neighbors or family; but from his well instructed beloved, and from his own sensitive soul that sentences him to economic catastrophe and to death by alcohol poisoning.

It is a notable event when a new play appears on the ART main stage.  Usually that stage is given over to the classics, while works that have yet to pass the test of time are relegated to the New Stages series at the Hasty Pudding Theatre, a smaller old fashioned proscenium house a couple of blocks away.  Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive",  with its delicate combination of distance and intimacy, fits very well on the spacious three quarter round thrust playing space of the ART's main, and the technical wizards there have given the author the mixed media metaphors her script prescribes.  J. Michael Griggs' set has a screen hanging at the left rear on which driver's-ed images and pedagogical terminology appear as visual aids to title the play's scenes and comment on the action, accompanied by sound effects and pompous voice-over instruction-- with the emphasis on the "reverse gear" of therapeutic reenactment.

I would never have guessed that Arliss Howard was capable of the depth and shading he brings to Uncle Peck from his performance as George Garga in the ART's "In the Jungle of Cities" last season.  Not that Howard was bad in that production: just that surrounded as he was by sound and fury and overweening post-mod scenery, the actor didn't make much of an impression.  Here, everything Howard does seems right.  Sometimes the rightness is the characters', and Uncle Peck the only grown person in Li'l Bit's world who can be counted on to say a sane thing or do a humane one.  Sometimes the rightness is the actor's, when Howard lets us sense the moral swamps that lurk just one step farther along the path we are watching him tread.

Debra Winger-- who is Howard's wife-- performs the play's narration as if she were sure that she is entitled to our attention and sympathy.  However, she didn't look entirely comfortable with her entitlement.  (Or with a few of the lines.). The narrator is a woman in mid life describing the formative events of her childhood.  Winger projected inner darkness and surface clarity, and the hard won strength to sustain both.  Her narrator is a romance survivor. Cropped hair, pants suit, rigid posture, she's dragged herself out of the forbidden impossible and into the matter of fact. She's hanging for dear life onto her objectivity as she returns to the past, taking us with her to the scene of "the last day I lived in my body."

In a 1950's rural Maryland that sometimes seems like an unspoiled Eden and sometimes like Tobacco Road,  Li'l Bit  is surrounded by family and friends who are grotesque cartoons, every one of them convinced that their peculiarities are normal and that a sensitive little girl should be hectored and harassed and humiliated until she turns out to be two dimensionally peculiar too.  Grampa picked Grandma out and married her when she was only fourteen, and has been chasing the fool woman around the house and shagging her at least twice a day ever since.  Grandpa is boorish lust personified, and Grandma is tickled blush pink to inspire such a performance-- though the old lady insists loudly that there's no such thing as a woman's orgasm.  How different is what's going on amongst the oldsters from what Uncle Peck has in mind for his niece? And how old a lady is an eleven year old's Grandma anyway, if that Grandma was a bride at fourteen? Forty five? ART Institute student Aysan Çelik plays Grandma as a very old lady indeed, the way Grandma might have seemed to Li'l Bit at the time.  The girl's  mother, a fount of lectures on the rituals of dating and drinking, and her other impossible relatives, all played by the "Greek Chorus" of Institute students Jonathan Hova and Kate Wisniewski plus Çelik, are also seen from the point of view of a beleaguered child.   The young actors latch on to a trait or two for each of their roles, and hurl themselves headlong into the farcical goings-on.  David Wheeler's inconspicuous direction is admirable for the courage he's instilled in all of them, to go boldly for the clash of styles that tells the story.

Howard's Uncle Peck is highlighted with a few of the comic touches that define the other characters, but Uncle Peck  is a figure of romance and of tragedy, written to be played from his own point of view.  Her uncle has for Li'l Bit a father's power to protect and instruct, combined-- as it must not be-- with the power and vulnerability of a lover.  He is the one who can be quiet and patient and calm, who listens, who makes an effort to understand the child--  he seems to her to be the only one who recognizes the unique and valuable person she is, and cares about the superior person she can grow up to be.  He tells his niece and himself that he wants to put her, young as she is, in the driver's seat: that his love is making her a gift of knowledge and power-- but even at that initial point they both know as well as we do that sitting on her uncle's lap and steering for him is forbidden and dangerous. What the girl she was learned from her uncle's lessons, and at what cost to both of them, are questions that obsess the woman Li'l Bit becomes.  It's as if those questions are on an exam. Li'l Bit  must answer them before she can move on.  For us, the audience, Vogel's narrator assigns those questions as a take home test.  We've already passed the pop quiz, by coming to know Uncle Peck as a flawed fellow human rather than a monster. While we're at it, maybe we're meant to try to turn the cartoon characters into people, too.