The tenacious human drive for recognition, acceptance, and emotional connection is revealed in a totally unexpected place in Theatre Unbound’s production of Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned To Drive. This family comic-tragedy, which can stand as a contemporary classic with the finest works of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson, made Vogel the first female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize.
How I Learned To Drive, a play written by Paula Vogel and directed by Maggie Scanlan. Presented by Theatre Unbound through November 23 at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center, 179 Robie St. E., St. Paul. For tickets ($10-$25) and information, see theatreunbound.com. Hear an interview with director Maggie Scanlan on November 14, 11 a.m. on Catalyst, KFAI Radio, 90.3 FM (Minneapolis), 106.7 FM (St. Paul).
In the play, a successful academic woman verging on mid-life takes a memory journey to face the psychological debris of her dysfunctional family—especially the uncle who affirmed her ambitions and stood in for an absent father, yet sexually abused her.
Vogel’s script accomplishes a delicate dance on this taboo tightrope, making both Li’l Bit and her Uncle Peck three-dimensional human beings with a real and complicated relationship. The challenges of addressing and healing any of the myriad problems—alcoholism, drug abuse, physical violence and neglect of children—that beset so many families resonate in this transcendent play.
Minneapolis newcomer Samantha Cullen Maronek—fresh from a stint in the San Francisco Mime Troupe—is remarkable in her ability to show Li’l Bit as the introspective 40-ish adult woman, floundering teenager, and luminous eleven-year-old. Maronek perfectly captures the spunk and vulnerability, rebellion and resignation, love and anger that propel Li’l Bit in the warped mirror of her Southern, working-class family. I can’t wait to see what Maronek’s next role will be.
Even as a child, Li’l Bit has a voracious intellectual curiosity that’s the subject of relentless ridicule from her alcoholic mother, crazy-making grandparents, and passive-aggressive Aunt Mary. Their invasive lack of respect and the hothouse atmosphere of emotional abuse are brilliantly revealed in scenes that are cartoon-like memories, with creative lighting by Becky Bechel, and leavened with a gallows-humor wackiness.
Shelia Regan unleashes Li’l Bit’s alcoholic mother as a trailer-trash “Southern Belle” giving advice on men and colluding with her parents’ humiliation of Li’l Bit’s. Regan’s portrayal of drunkeness ranges from the believably accurate to the hilariously absurd. Sasha Walloch, a Twin Cities actor and the associate artistic director of Commedia Beauregard, does effective double duty as the weirdest grandmother you’ve ever seen and Aunt Mary, the dirt-poor disconnected Stepford Wife married to Uncle Peck. Christopher Keohoe is the creepy grandfather telling dirty jokes and inappropriately commenting on his granddaughter’s physical development. This trio of actors are a terrific ensemble that embody Tolstoy’s dictum about unhappy families. They bring to painfully zany life characters that alternately appall and amuse—often in the same moment. Their utter failure to see and love Li’l Bit for who she is, coupled with the gaping hole of her missing father, sets the stage for the sexual abuse to happen. Vogel has also created a cultural framework for this family: the kind of “Red State” conservative, white working-class mentality that has dominated the United States for the last eight years.
But perhaps the most amazing character is that of Uncle Peck, played with powerfully subtle nuance by Eric Knuston, a veteran of 20 productions with Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro. Uncle Peck is smartly charming, tender, lonely as hell, and the only person in Li’l Bit’s family who values and mentors the girl’s bookishness and interest in the world beyond the confines of a culture that embraces ignorance. Knutson fearlessly surrenders to this character’s contradictions, creating a man we like while being deeply shaken by his actions. It’s not an overstatement to say that Knutson has gotten inside Uncle Peck’s soul. There is undeniably real love between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit, which is what makes his betrayal of her so heartbreaking for them both.
Drawing on the “edgy classics” she’s produced and directed with her own company Nightpath Theatre, Scanlan is equally adept at guiding actors in the credible intimacy between the two lead characters and choreographing the dark comedy that relieves the horror and tears this story evokes. It’s a delicate balance, and Scanlan is brilliantly sure-footed. She has an intuitive genius. Li’l Bit’s childhood is further evoked by a 1960s sound design by Dixie Treichel (of KFAI’s Fresh Fruit). Renee Peterson’s set—a simple table and chairs among car parts and dolls—is perfect.
Many discussions about the sexual abuse of children feature dire warnings about about “dangerous strangers” or spew homophobic distortions of gay men as threats to children. However, the facts are that most perpetrators are heterosexual males who are relatives of victims who are primarily female. How I Learned To Drive breaks through our society’s denial and refusal to portray a profound contradiction: the people who sexually abuse children can’t always be summed up as only “monsters,” but, are often people we know and love. Theatre Unbound has hit another high mark in its mission of producing strong plays by and about women.
While Vogel was partly inspired by the modern classic Lolita, How I Learned To Drive does not make the adult abuser the pathetic victim or the young girl into a manipulative seductress who “asked for it,” as Vladamir Nabokov’s novel did. Knutson and Maronek are both believable to their core as this man and girl who are both lost souls, yearning to be visible and loved for themselves, in the midst of a family that’s fallen horribly apart under the same roof. It’s clear who crossed the line even as we come to understand why Uncle Peck’s longing to connect took such a twisted path.
I’d put this production at #1 in any Top Ten of plays for the 2008 Twin Cities theater season. For abuse survivors, those who love them, and anyone who wants an extraordinary theatre experience, How I Learned To Drive must not be missed. I can attest from my own life experience, that, Li’l Bit’s road to forgiveness and healing is rooted in a reality shared by all victims of child abuse. In this unforgettable play, Paula Vogel and Theatre Unbound dare to tell the truth.
Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.