The ‘power of love and mercy’

Malibu Stage Repertory takes on the themes of pain and forgiveness in “How I Learned to Drive.”

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When playwright Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “How I Learned to Drive” opens this weekend at Malibu Stage Company Theater, director Veronica Brady expects that its themes of pedophilia, incest and misogyny will make some audience members uncomfortable.

“But Paula really created a beautifully balanced piece,” Brady, a Malibu director and producer, said. “She wrote this play based on personal experience and it’s a dark world. But she holds your hand along the way and, ultimately, I think this play is a story about forgiveness and learning to survive.”

“How I Learned to Drive” originally played in Manhattan’s Vineyard Theater, starring Mary Louise Parker and David Morse. Critics hailed the painful drama and the production earned Pulitzer and Obie awards (Off Broadway equivalents of the Tony Awards), Drama Desk Awards, Lucille Lortel Awards, Outer Critics Circle Awards and New York Drama Critics Awards for outstanding play, playwriting, direction, actor and actress.

The story is a southern gothic tale of a young girl’s abuse from an alcoholic uncle, who is perhaps the least problematic relationship in her life, after a reckless mother, a grandmother tied to an ignorant, sexist grandfather and her Aunt Mary, who is in denial about her husband’s behavior. The story follows “Li’l Bit’s” gradual growth to maturity and forgiveness, despite an onslaught of emotions too grownup for a teenager.

Brady’s choice of actors Tara Buck, as the girl “Li’l Bit,” and Nick Stabile as the uncle, goes far in negotiating the delicate subject matter. Buck is currently enjoying a recurring role on the HBO series “True Blood,” after appearances on television series like “Nip/Tuck,” “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.” Stabile began his career starring in the television series “Sunset Beach” before playing the lead opposite Katherine Heigl in the cult classic “Bride of Chucky.” Multiple television and mini-series later, he is poised to provoke loathing as much as pity as “Uncle Peck.”

“From the beginning, you know that Li’l Bit survives this ordeal,” Brady said in a break between rehearsals last week. “I think a lot of women and girls will relate to her experience and, for women who have come out on the other side of this kind of thing, it is a triumphant statement of resilience. There is horror to this, yes, but something very, very human.”

Brady’s first directing experience was another play of Vogel’s called “Meg,” about Sir Thomas More’s 16th century, intellectually acute daughter. Brady is known for being an actor’s director, culling raw performances from her cast members and earning her an L.A. Weekly Theater Award for Best Director for “Two Headed,” a play by Julie Jensen about a historic Mormon massacre-something Brady recently adapted to a screenplay. Earlier this year, her HBO documentary “The Alzheimer’s Project” won an Emmy Award in the outstanding children’s non fiction category.

Actress Buck has somehow managed to find the time to rehearse “How I Learned to Drive” while juggling preparations to renew filming for “True Blood.” She jumped at the chance to work with Stabile and Brady with the Malibu Stage production.

“There is no way I could or would do this difficult play without Veronica,” Buck said. “She is an absolute joy.”

The actress insists there is no discomfort taking on the role of Li’l Bit, a role in which she ages from a young teenager to a grown woman.

“Actually, I’m kind of dark,” the blonde actress said. “I figure if you are going to do drama, you might as well go for the stuff that makes your skin crawl. It’s one thing to discuss this subject as a prurient, sensational thing. But it’s quite another to have this amazing script.”

Having trained with the late, iconoclastic acting coach Milton Katselas of the Beverly Hills Playhouse, Buck immediately recognized that her core character had a great love story.

“Li’l Bit overcomes serious obstacles, which is the source of great theater,” Buck said. “Milton was a true master, and I don’t throw that word around lightly. He said that it doesn’t matter if you are working in a small space like a TV screen or a huge, one thousand-seat auditorium. If you’re acting honestly, it’s all the same.”

“How I Learned to Drive” employs three other cast members (Clayton B. Hodges, Tricia Small and Coco Walker) who play several roles and act as a sort of Greek chorus to set the stage for revolving scenes on a set designed by Janne Larsen.

Last week, the actors were working on a pivotal scene where Uncle Peck is photographing a pubescent L’il Bit.

“Why do girls grow up before boys?” the teenager asks, tossing her hair around.

“I don’t know, but it’s a blessing to me,” Peck replies, clicking away.

The moment perfectly captures the creepy, sad, confusing dilemma of female adolescent angst.

“This play is about more than forgiveness,” Buck said. “In life, you have a choice about who you will become because of the path you take. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose who you are. There is power in love and mercy.”

“How I Learned to Drive” opens Friday, April 30, and runs through May 23 at the Malibu Stage Company Theater. More information can be found at www.malibustagecompany.org. Tickets can be purchased online at at www.brownpapertickets.com

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