Greenbelt Arts Center How I Learned To DriveBy Bob Ashby • Jan 30th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Greenbelt Arts Center
Greenbelt Community Arts Center, Greenbelt, MD
Through February 10th
$17/$14 Students and Seniors
Reviewed January 27th, 2012
The first thing Greenbelt Arts Center did right was to select Paula Vogel’s brilliant 1997 script to produce. Long before the Penn State scandal, before the investigations of pedophilia in the Catholic church had fully gathered steam, Vogel wrote this complex, funny, sometimes terrifyingly disturbing story of a 45-year-old uncle’s relationship with his 11-18-year-old niece. Vogel won a Pulitzer for her efforts, deserved at least in part because she presents the characters’ actions as part of a deeply human relationship, albeit a distorted and damaging one, not simply as a Manichean tale of abuser and victim. No one’s humanity is slighted, and the script holds out possibility of understanding, perhaps even a degree of forgiveness, for even the most flawed of people.
Lil’ Bit, the protagonist and narrator of this memory play, lives in the midst of a family that is not only dysfunctional but one in which everyone and everything is sexualized, down to the names they are called. It is a family that devalues all that the bright, adventurous, interesting Lil’ Bit wants to be, focusing only on her prematurely large breasts. Only Uncle Peck supports her ambitions to talk about history and literature, to go to college, to live in a wider world. He shows her the promise of freedom by teaching her to drive, a gift that lasts into her adulthood. But while he is teaching her, he is touching her, leading up to what he patiently hopes will be a time when they are fully lovers. He is simultaneously the best thing and the worst thing in her life.
As Lil’ Bit, Elizabethann English moves seamlessly between a ruefully ironic sensibility as an adult, looking back on what has happened and what it has meant to her, and as the girl she had been at various ages and various stages of her relationship with Peck. She has a particularly nice moment when, at the end of a scene in which Peck is doing a basement photo shoot of the then-13 year old Lil’ Bit, he tells her that he loves her. English breaks into a transforming smile at the thought of being loved by the one person in her world who pays attention to who she is.
As written by Vogel and portrayed by English, Lil’ Bit is not a passive victim. She actively collaborates in her relationship with Peck, setting limits — which Peck is careful not to transgress — but allowing, even encouraging, things to occur that she knows are wrong. Vogel does not use this facet of Lil’ Bit’s character to excuse Peck’s actions — he is an adult who has better reason than a young girl to know the locations of lines that must not be crossed — but Vogel does not shrink from the sight of a girl testing the power her sexuality can exert over a man. Nor does she pretend that, while Lil’ Bit survives the relationship with Peck, she comes away unscathed. By the end of the play, Lil’ Bit concedes that she is unable to live in her body, only above the neck and in her car. As interpreted by English, Lil’ Bit appears more sanguine about this than one might expect.
Other characters try without success to understand Peck, whose parts do not seem to add up to a coherent whole. He is a helpful man around the house and the community. He drinks too much. He had apparently searing experiences during World War II that he won’t talk about. He was a disappointment to his mother. He can form sexual relationships with children (not only with Lil’ Bit; there is a wrenching monologue in which he describes his grooming of Cousin Bobby on a fishing trip) but not adults. He may have been abused as a child himself. He speaks of a fire in the heart that cannot be quenched. Vogel’s writing provides a rich lode of possibilities for an actor to dig into.
Unfortunately, Bill Brekke is able to do little more than skim the surface. His consistently low-key, quiet, somewhat passive, one-level performance misses opportunities to portray the character’s cleverness, seductiveness, sweetness, self-deception, and nearly bottomless emptiness. Near the end of the play, for example, when Lil’ Bit decisively rejects him, he briefly lies down and then goes for a drink, but a sense of his being so totally crushed that he will drink himself to death over the next several years is lacking.
A three-person ensemble rounds out the cast. Jill Goodrich’s roles include Lil’ Bit’s mother and Aunt Mary (Peck’s wife). As the former, she gives a three-part, progressively drunker and progressively funnier, monologue on how women should drink. As Aunt Mary, she speaks poignantly of her patient understanding of her errant and damaged husband, blaming Lil’ Bit for seducing him. Both women know there is something very wrong going on between Lil’ Bit and Peck, and — perhaps in this way not too unlike supposedly responsible officials of academic or religious institutions — take no action to stop it. Jessica Powers-Heaven portrays Lil’ Bit’s sexually put-upon grandmother, who knows her husband asks only that she put food on the table and keep the bed covers rolled down. Ric Andersen has highly effective comic turns as Lil’ Bit’s high-decibel, vulgar, sexist, dirty old man of a grandfather and a short, shy, persistent boy trying unsuccessfully to get Lil’ Bit to dance with him.
The Greenbelt Arts Center space is a small black box, and the setting for the play is appropriately simple, consisting of a dinner table, a liquor stand, and a bench serving as a car and a hotel bed. The set is augmented by sporadic slide projections of period cars and, most effectively, of interspersed photos of Lil’ Bit and Vargas-style pinups in the photo shoot scene. The lighting works well in establishing and changing scenes in the various playing areas, and a well conceived and executed sound design provides a good sense of the period’s musical soundtrack (the all-too-appropriate “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind” makes an appearance in the pre-show music, for example).
The play is set in the Beltsville area of Prince Georges County, not far from Greenbelt. Lil’ Bit and most of her Maryland family sometimes speak with Southern accents, while Uncle Peck, who hails from South Carolina, does not. Having lived in Prince George’s County during the time covered by the play (late 60s/early 70s), I don’t recall hearing that many accents of this sort, but this counts as merely a quibble.
As a most creditable production of a top-notch script, this show deserves a larger house than it has drawn during the first two weekends of its four-week run. Even for theater goers based in Virginia or DC, the commute to Greenbelt is not that long. It will be worth your trip.
This production marks a homecoming of sorts for How I Learned to Drive. The play’s references to the area including the Beltsville Agricultural Farms, Route 1, and the Beltway put Greenbelt squarely in Lil’ Bit’s backyard. In addition to its geographic proximity, GAC is an ideal space to put up this show. The intimate space of the black box allows makes this a very exciting place to mount a show that is both subtle and powerful, and connect with the audience along the way.
It was as an audience member that I first fell in love with this play. I was working at a summer theater during college, and How I Learned to Drive was the last show of our season. It was the only show that summer that I wasn’t involved with on some level, so I was able to enjoy opening night with the same fresh eyes as the rest of the audience. By the end of that performance I felt both exhilarated and totally shattered. I sat through every performance of that run, finding something new to enjoy each time.
The layers of comedy and depths of tragedy that Paula Vogel probes as the play unfolds provoke myriad responses in audience members. No two people will react to this play and its characters in the same way. I encourage you to share your reactions with others after the show, you may be surprised what others were thinking. In the meantime, thank you for coming to the show, and enjoy the ride.
Photos by Heather Benjamin
- Lil’ Bit: Elizabethann English
- Uncle Peck: Bill Brekke
- Male Greek Chorus: Ric Andersen
- Female Greek Chorus: Jill Goodrich
- Teenage Greek Chorus: Jessica Powers-Heaven
- Director: Patrick Miller
- Producer: Julia Morrissey
- Assistant Director: Heather Benjamin
- Stage Manager: Kevin O’Connell
- Assistant Stage Manager: Caroline Duffy
- Set Designer: Patrick Miller
- Lighting Designer: Jeffery Lesniak
- Lighting Assistant: Jacinda Shelly
- Costumes: Melanie Papasian and Cast
- Sound Designer: Kevin O’Connell
- Projection Design: J. Michael Griggs
- Program/Poster Design: Betsy Marks Delaney
- House Manager: Dotty Spivacke
Disclaimer: Greenbelt Arts Center provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7598.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.