Monday, September 11, 2017

"How I Learned to Drive"

How I Learned to Drive
Paula Vogel

Amanda Farbstein & Eric Reid
“That day was the last day I lived in my body.
I retreated into my head and lived there ever since.”

A night at the theatre is not always an easy, enjoyable experience, even when the production is first-rate.  When the play’s subjects include pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, one cannot expect to walk out laughing or smiling.  One leaves a bit stunned with something like a bad taste in the mouth and a stomach feeling a bit queasy.  The first reaction is to retreat to wash one’s hands; the second is to wonder how many in the audience have had locked-away memories jolted awake by this play.

After it premiered in 1997, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer Prize and almost every Off-Broadway award for Best Play.  When Artistic Director Brian Katz introduced Custom Made Theatre’s eighteenth season opener by saying, “This is a play I have been so wanting to do for years,” we realize that something possibly important is about to happen, even if the story may be at times repugnant in nature.  In a production marked by meticulously timed direction, a superb cast, and an intriguing scenic design, Custom Made brings to the stage Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive where we soon learn that “sometimes to tell a story, you have to learn a lesson” – especially if that lesson is half a lifetime in the making.

Amanda Farbstein
How could the thirty-something woman, our prime storyteller standing before us, ever have acquired a name like “Li’l Bit”?  Actually, coming from a family where genitalia are the prime inspirations for names (Cousin “Blue Balls,” Grandfather “Big Papa, ” and Grandma “Titless Wonder”), being named as a baby for your small vagina is a no-brainer.  But when we learn from her that “even with my family background, I was sixteen or so before I realized pedophilia did not mean ‘people who loved to bicycle’,” we realize that Li’l Bit has come from a clan where holiday gatherings might not be full of the kind of family love most of us would desire.

Paula Vogel structures her play as a series of memory playbacks -- mostly recalled in chronological sequence – in which Li’l Bit tells of her ongoing relationship with her Uncle Peck, a man about twenty years her senior.  Beginning with a scene in which he one-handedly unhooks through the seventeen-year-old’s blouse her brassiere while they both sit in the front seats of his car, we hear and see played out a number of equally disturbing episodes.  These events go all the way back to when she was eleven as the now thirty-seven-year-old relates in mostly conversational, matter-of-fact manner her story.  Often the context is in her Uncle’s car, as he entices her from an early age to be with him in order for him to teach her to drive – something he seems to do with much care in explicit, step-by-step details.  That concern for her health and well-being is in sharp contrast to his sick, sleazy motives to see and touch (and possibly more) her young, developing body.

Both Amanda Farbstein and Eric Reid give wonderfully under-played performances as Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, each full of subtle nuance and each all too believable.  Li’l Bit lives with a family she increasingly cannot stand to be around (as we see in a number of scenes where dining-table discussions center on her much-developed breasts or on details of having an orgasm).  Ms. Farbstein convincingly erupts into teenage anger and revulsion as a grandfather continues to insult her breast while a mother and a granny just listen and smirk. 

The only one who seems to understand her and to encourage her to break away and go to college is her Uncle Peck.  The soft, understanding tones that Eric Reid uses to soothe Li’l Bit as well as the big, friendly smile and gentle touches to her arm or shoulder would probably appease any pissed-off niece who at the moment hates the rest of her family.  The icky yet totally seducing part of Mr. Reid’s performance is how much we almost want to like him, just as Li’l Bit herself struggles for years in her own approach-avoidance battle regarding the man.  After all, he never pounces on her or seems to force himself, often saying something like, “You wanna stop?  I won’t do anything you don’t want to do.” 

Mr. Reid is masterful in his portrayal of this Uncle whose magnetism is both attractive and repulsive.  Equally impressive is Ms. Farbstein as we cannot help but understand and empathize how what she allows to happen time and again here on the stage could in fact have happened in someone’s real life – and probably does happen to many equally vulnerable kids and young adults every day.

Peering eyes from a corner of the stage are often watching and reacting in various intensely yucky expressions to the memories of Li’l Bit with her Uncle Peck.  Besides their silent, leering observances, a “Greek Chorus” of three plays a wide range of roles – everything from the bizarre set of relatives worthy of much loathing to the unseen singers of the radio harmonies of the 1960’s (“In the Still of the Night,” “Surfer Girl,” etc.) that Li’l Bit likes to tune into while driving along with her Uncle on the back roads where he lures her. 

Valerie Fachman, Amanda Farbstein & Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
Among other roles, David Schiller is the abhorrent “Big Papa,” using his gravelly voice and slurping tongue to full advantage as the old geezer we hate in a moment’s meeting.  Valerie Fachman plays Li’l Bit’s mother as well as the Aunt Mary who gives a sad defense of her husband Peck that sounds too convincingly real not to be similar to what many family members often say as they sweep under the rug pedophilia incidents that they want to hide, ignore, and forget.  Gianna DiGregorio Rivera takes on a mirror image of Li’l Bit at one point, suggesting the out-of-body experience we all have sometimes in seeing ourselves in incidents that are just too unreal really to be us.   All three are also too reminiscent of the teenagers that plagued many of us as they tease and torture Li’l Bit over her well-endowed breasts.

Katja Rivera masterfully directs the series of difficult memories with a flow of recollections that comes in wave after wave, seamlessly.  At the same time, there are moments for both Li’l Bit and us to breathe more easily as director and playwright join forces as the young woman describes idyllic, pastoral scenes of rural Maryland – offering quiet pictures of the surrounding beauty Li’l Bit still remembers in great detail even after all that was so ugly has occurred to her in those very locations.

Tom O’Brien has created in the small setting a sweeping set design that creates on one side a monument to the automobile and the open road as well cordons off in an opposite corner a space where Chorus and Family can play out their roles.  Maxx Kurzunki’s lighting and Ryan Lee Short’s sound designs along with Kathleen Qiu’s costumes round out a production team’s efforts where each has contributed to a Custom Made production tough to watch but important to see.

Rating: 4 E

How I Learned to Drive continues through October 7, 2017 at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photos by Jay Yamada

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