“How I Learned to Drive,” currently playing at the Malibu Stage Company Theater, is a play of such cringing, painful memory that its miracle is the message of forgiveness which somehow claws its way through the tangle of guilt, confusion and all-too-human frailty. As suggested in Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-, Obie,- and Drama Desk Award-winner, freedom can be found in acceptance of what is unacceptable and from behind the wheel of a V-8 engine.
Central to the success of this production is the luminous performance by Tara Buck as Li’l Bit, a woman whose childhood is so shaped by grownup emotions, both welcomed and forced, that she is unable to fully embrace the maturity she seeks as an adult until she comes to terms with the sins of her past.
Those sins are visited upon Li’l Bit from an early age, living as she does with an extended family whose rural roots both repress her and give her an outsider’s autonomy.
Her horrible, misogynistic grandfather can only relate to women-even his own grandchild-as sexual objects. Her grandmother, a former child-bride, takes refuge in the Bible and dark warnings about the unyielding nature of men. Her mother, resentful at her own mother’s lack of any instruction in matters of intimacy, is powerless to save her daughter from inappropriate attention from older men. Her uncle shows unhealthy interest in her and her aunt is in bitter denial at the loss of her husband’s affections. Is it any wonder Li’l Bit enters puberty confused about her own essential womanhood?
Buck perfectly captures that uncomfortable, embarrassed awkwardness of budding sexuality, even while she unconsciously moves with the unthinking sensuality of a cat in heat. Her teenaged Li’l Bit is lonely, frustrated and confused as to why she likes Uncle Peck’s interest in her. Something in her knows it’s wrong, but it doesn’t stop her from teasing out his affections, complicit in the knowledge that she and her uncle share something the others don’t have.
Uncle Peck is a sorry, misplaced alcoholic, as frustrated with his life as Li’l Bit is with hers, and helpless to resist his niece. His drinking allows him to justify his pedophilia and, pushed on by his wife and sister-in-law, he falls into a self-loathing love with a child who only comprehends that he is the one member of the family who gets her.
As Peck, actor Nick Stabile accomplishes the near impossible: making a loathsome character of despicable impulses human and even empathetic. In a solitary speech about the joys of fishing, Peck delicately reveals the isolation and helplessness that fills him after returning home from the horrors of war. This is a broken man who can only find solace in a woman-child as out of place as himself.
Not that Li’l Bit is entirely unaware of the skewed dynamic. She warns Peck not to “cross any lines” even while she woos him subconsciously with lines like, “Families? I guess they’re an acquired taste-like French kisses.” But the child can be forgiven such mixed messages. Li’l Bit is warned by her mother, who is aware of Peck’s interest in her daughter, “If anything ever happens, I’ll hold you responsible.”
When Li’l Bit finally goes off to college, Peck is undone and his pathetic attempts to win his niece’s unholy love are as heartbreaking as they are repulsive. The scene where we finally see Peck’s initial molestation of an 11-year-old Li’l Bit during a driving lesson, comes at the end of the play-a construct that is perhaps understandable. At that point, you don’t want to lynch Peck as much as you want to get him some therapy.
Vogel wrote this piece as an autobiographical slice of her life, and the scenes from Li’l Bit’s memories flash by in a nonlinear fashion, from listening in to “women’s talk” in the kitchen, to clumsy high school dances to an inappropriate photo shoot in Uncle Peck’s basement dark room.
Director Veronica Brady deftly stages this long one-act to flow seamlessly from kitchen table to high school gym on a strikingly engaging set by Janne Larsen, complemented by a clever prop constructed of rear-view mirrors and a back screen that offers dream-like video images.
The sound design by Bruce Greenspan is as evocative and delicate as one could possibly want, helped along in doo-wap moments by the terrific cast who play Li’l Bit’s damaged family (and who play several other roles each) and act as a Greek chorus: Tricia Small (L’il Bits mother/aunt), Clayton B. Hodges (the grandfather) and Coco Walker (the grandmother).
In the end, Li’l Bit forgives Uncle Peck. It is a testimony to Vogel’s creative catharsis that she turned what could be dysfunctional family tragedy into brilliant drama.
“How I Learned to Drive” plays at the Malibu Stage Company Theater through May 23. More information can be found online at www.malibustagecompany.org. Tickets can be purchased online at www.brownpapertickets.com