Julia Gibson and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck (photo by HuthPhoto)
Though Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive first debuted in 1997 and takes place much earlier- in the 1960s- its themes about rape, consent, and the abuse of power are all too relevant today. In fact, in some ways, they seem even more relevant than they did when the show first premiered. PlayMakers Repertory Company seems to understand the relevancy of this production, as does skilled director, Lee Sunday Evans, who presents the show’s often-difficult themes with gentleness and, for the most part, a subtlety that makes most of the jarring scenes a little easier to handle…though not so much easier as to dull their effect.
In fact, many moments in the show, which details a young girl named Li’l Bit’s (Julia Gibson) improperly balanced relationship with her adult Uncle Peck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), are so tough to watch that viewers have to look away. However, being hard to watch does not mean that this story isn’t one that deserves to be explored.
As Li’l Bit, who recounts her relationship as an adult, looks back on the terrible things she experienced, she doesn’t do so in a woe-is-me type of way. And, though she very much was a victim, it is clear that Li’l Bit no longer views herself in that light. Vogel has used this character’s story and newfound outlook to send a message of hope and to act as a “survival guide” of sorts to anyone who may be navigating a similar path.
Vogel’s script jumps back and forth in time, recounting many of the telling moments in Li’l Bit’s life, but Evans’ clever staging and subtle visual cues always make it easy to nail down place and time. And, while these details are important, the main thing viewers will focus on are the strong performances given by the leads. Gibson gives a sympathetic, tear-inducing portrayal of Li’l Bit, though she knows just where to find and insert her character’s strength.
Cornell, on the other hand, is all too convincing as Uncle Peck. In fact, it will be hard to “unsee” this character on Cornell since he plays it so well. Embodying such a difficult role and doing it well is quite the amazing feat, especially since Cornell does manage to make the character appear somewhat human…though he never crosses the line into “sympathetic.” The script and Cornell’s portrayal make it clear that there are reasons for Uncle Peck’s foul actions, though neither attempt to excuse them in any way. It’s a fine line to walk, but this production manages to walk it well, asking viewers to draw their own observations and judgments, instead of forcing one particular outlook upon them.
Overall, this is a tenuous, tough show. It is not necessarily fun to watch, but it is important and powerful, which is what theatre ultimately should be. Backed by a gifted “Greek Chorus” that fills in roles when needed, perfect lighting cues, and a disturbing but honest script, this show will speak volumes to viewers. What, exactly, it will speak, will depend largely on perspective and past experience, but the production should take everyone on a personal journey of sorts.
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