Learning to drive is a right of passage for many. “How I Learned to Drive” (HILTD) at Cleveland Play House is a journey of both real driving and the navigation of family secrets. Playing now through March 26, 2017 on the Allen Theatre mainstage at Playhouse Square, HILTD is a complicated but well-written gem.
Authored by Paula Vogel and directed by Laura Kepley, HILTD transports the audience to 1960s Maryland where we meet Li’l Bit (Madeleine Lambert), Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco), and three Greek Chorus members who play varying roles of mother, grandmother, aunt, grandpa, etc. (Karis Danish, Nick Lamedica, and Remy Zaken).
Swerving in and out of Li’l Bit’s memories, the story goes through patches of levity while steering through challenging subjects. While described as a story where a teenager finds herself in a complicated relationship with an older man, the deeper caverns of through line involve sexual abuse, alcoholism, and pedophilia.
While not a “warm and fuzzy” piece, it is certainly a well-directed and appropriately performed drama. Jumping back and forth in time, the story of Li’l Bit is a complicated coming-of-age narrative of a girl who has to find out what “love” means within a fishbowl of family dysfunction.
The family’s nicknames for each other are assigned based on their genitalia and jokingly propagated throughout the decades. Her mom (who loves her alcohol) is the “titless wonder,” grandpa is “Big Papa,” and Cousin BB stands for “Blue Balls.” From day one on the planet, Li’l Bit (whose name is explained early on) is inundated with a sexualized atmosphere.
Li’l Bit longs to get out of that rural town – she wants to read and to use her brain to be more and to do more than just have big boobs and be a house wife.
It seems like Uncle Peck is the only one that understands the young and innocent Li’l Bit. He supports her dreams and can talk to her in a way that no other family member can, calming her in moments of anxiety.
But it is also quickly and uncomfortably understood that he also causes other kinds of apprehension for her. A chat in a car is not as innocent as it first appears. A photo shoot in a basement becomes awkward. A trip to a restaurant is an introduction to more than just the cuisine. A driving lesson, is not just about learning to drive.
With moments of humor looking at how men and women “should” behave, the show has plenty of playfulness to balance out the serious subject matter. Li’l Bit’s mom has lots of information to dole out while downing martinis. Li’l Bit’s mom and grandma also have a very spirited conversation with her about orgasms, and why sex is scary.
Who are these characters? Vogel is a brilliant author making each one not only unique, but likeable in different ways, which is distasteful at times. Knowing that Uncle Peck is taking advantage of a young person is disgraceful, but Vogel also paints him as amiable and relevant – as human. She makes one feel for the villain just a bit, but never letting it be forgotten that a monster also lives within.
The actors are all solid in their performances, and Kepley has staged a wonderful ensemble around Lambert and Brusasco. They tell the story with respect, with enlightenment, and with emotion.
The costumes of the 1960s era by Lex Liang are fantastic alongside the furnishings and props via scenic designer Collette Pollard – on point and well-lit by lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, with sound by Broken Chord. Projection Design by Caite Hevner is prevalent and poignant to the story.
An “off” visual is the main scenic element of the giant road. It feels like it cuts the stage in two as it runs straight up the into the stage’s fly system. Although it provides a needed level, that level is only used twice by the actors during the performance, and the element itself seems to almost divide and cramp the space a bit, although in reality there’s plenty of room for the action.
Regardless, Kepley and cast have succeeded in producing a quality production that deals with a difficult subject. Not for those who may be “triggered” by situations pertaining to sexual abuse, “How I Learned to Drive” is a story of personal healing, family forgiveness, and moving through life’s hard situations with determination, class and hope.
“How I Learned to Drive” plays now through March 26, 2017 on the Allen Theatre mainstage at Playhouse Square. Tickets range in price from $25-$100 each. To order single tickets please call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com. Groups of 10+ save up to 40% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.