Monday, February 13, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

Early in previews, the Second Stage revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, directed by Kate Whoriskey, was already in good shape, well-paced, well-acted, and emotionally devastating. Elizabeth Reaser was a little tentative at first, but I have no doubt that by now she's excellent in the role. The amazing Norbert Leo Butz was, as always, superb. (I guess Butz couldn't play Belle in Beauty and the Beast, but I'm sure he could play pretty much anyone else.)

While I thought the production was quite good, I was considerably less impressed with the play itself. Here's why.
[spoilers abound] [really, nothing but spoilers] 

How I Learned to Drive seems initially to be examining how incest is not always a simple case of older-perpetrator-abuses-younger-victim. Teenaged Li'l Bit is flirtatious with her Uncle Peck, and he comes across as more of a supplicant than an abuser. And Peck is a sympathetic character, a World War II veteran who has seen horrible things he will not, cannot, discuss.

I bought all of this. I even found it intriguing, compelling. Life is not black and white. Older people are not always the ones with power. Otherwise nice people can do terrible things.

But, then, at the end of the play, which is told mostly in reverse-order flashbacks, we see the beginning of the story. Li'l Bit, only 11 years old, is on a long drive with Uncle Peck. He offers to let her drive. She is too small to reach the gas pedal, so he suggests that she sit on his lap; he'll control the speed while she steers. And then he seriously, flat-out molests her, grinding against her to orgasm while roughly feeling her up.

No, no, no. The relationship that Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck have through most of the play did not develop out of that beginning. I think it is possible that Li'l Bit would continue to spend time alone with Peck and would even want his attention and approval, would even almost flirt with him, particularly considering the weird sexualization of her entire family. However, there is zero reason to believe that Peck would develop the sort of boundaries and supplicating attitude that he has with her for the rest of the play. The trajectory of molestation isn't less and less; it's more and more. If he had grabbed her like that once, he would do so again. And again. And again.

If How I Learned to Drive were played in chronological order, it would fall to pieces. 

(tdf ticket; 6th row extreme audience left)

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