On the Bodies of Women: 2. “How I Learned to Drive”

In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed — no, participated in, from the seats — two stage productions focused on the bodies of women. Here’s my attempt to thread my way through these engaging, disturbing experiences.

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

This unassuming play premiered in1997, winning a Pulitzer and shelf of theatre awards, and has become a familiar feature of our theatre landscape.   Now the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic. 

Drive
Thadeus Shaffer and Elitia Daniels

It’s the story of a girl, Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) who learns driving — and drinking — and sexuality — from her alcoholic uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shaffer).  It’s simply told:  two chairs on a bare stage, at times two more and a table, in one scene a bed.  Only the two main characters are drawn full; the others are sketched by three supporting actors (Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales).

With these bits of yarn, Paula Vogel (now Yale’s playwriting prof) weaves a mesmerizing tale.  In fact — as Ben Brantley noted in his NY Times review of the 2012 Broadway revival — she also slips in “Brechtian scene titles … self-conscious use of illusion, strategically scrambled chronology [and] cartoonish comic exaggeration.”  But it feels familiar, swift and stark, just like a classical tragedy.

Indeed it is a tragedy, one to stand alongside Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey.   Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis.  In clear language and images we cannot fail to recognize, How I Learned… reveals the web of half-conscious complicity that surrounds us all, as we struggle to survive our culture’s “design for living.”

By the time this tale is told, we have felt the desperate attempt of each character — even Li’l Bit’s comic-strip grandparents — to make sense of the unspoken rules, to find a way to be a man or a woman. We’ve felt their need to anesthetize the loneliness and pain, to ignore the horrors we endure and, in turn, inflict.

All are ensnared in the gender trap.  No one gets free.  Not even those of us who applaud and leave the theatre.  That’s what makes it tragic.

Vogel knows what she’s doing (we never hear the family’s last name; the three backup players are listed as “Greek Chorus”), and her achievement is remarkable.  She deserves the awards.

Equally worthy of praise is the direction of Carly D. Weckstein (who led Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year), and the work of the cast  and crew.   By daring to stay close to the harrowing ride mapped out in Vogel’s script, they lead us on a painful but necessary journey.

Touches of faithful genius fill this production.  The pre-show shocks us with recognition as we hum along to the pedophilic “love songs” of the era (“You’re 16, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine”; “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind”), suggested by Vogel and selected by Weckstein.  William Herder’s set wears the face of a ’50s model female emerging on a peeled billboard, torn scraps leaving her with only one eye.   An electronic projection writhes anxiously upon it before the play starts … at the climax, its  white garden-lattice base falls open to become a hotel bed.

In one scene, Uncle Peck “grooms” a young nephew by teaching him to fish.  All the while, Li’l Bit lies under a blanket nearby where (in the previous scene) she’d fallen asleep, drunk, in Peck’s car.  In another scene, as Li’l Bit recounts his relapse and swift alcoholic decline, Peck downs several shots then steps to the edge of the stage, poised as if to take flight;  seconds later, she tells us he died by falling down the cellar stairs.

Many such moments grace the performance.  But it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout.

Elitia Daniels displays impressive range, bringing all of Li’l Bit to life, especially eloquent at embodying her often unspoken conflict and discomfort.  Though the play is decidedly non-linear, she clearly shows us her character’s evolution from a child seeking acceptance and love, through confusion and anger, to a young woman struggling for a sense of control in her life.  She reveals flashes of wit and wile that brighten and darken her character.  And Daniels’ own zaftig beauty  (quietly overplayed by Janet Leon’s costume design) makes Li’l Bit’s pre-teen precocity and anguish fully credible.

Thaddeus Shaffer is another felicitous choice.  Laying aside easy  choices (leering lout, Southern gentleman), he delicately crafts a man who has barely survived, long before the scarring war he can’t discuss.  Peck almost visibly trembles with the effort to live within his skin.  We know what he will do, yet we feel his desperation for the empathy his niece gives — and for the devil’s bargain she offers, intimacy in return for his going on the wagon.  Shaffer always shows us, subtly, that Peck’s genuine love and his specious assurances deceive him as well as Li’l Bit.  By the end, he has taken us far from easy judgment and socially approved hatred to a much different, more painful place.

The Greek Chorus trio handles widely varied, often very brief roles.   They carve them clearly, and keep them distinct.  And they move easily among the many styles the script demands.  Anna Walters, as Li’l Bit’s mother, slides from satiric realism to Lucille Ball buffoonery in her multi-stage monologue on how a lady drinks.  Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales shift smoothly from teens to a pair of sex-obsessed sexagenerians straight out of commedia dell’arte.  Taylor also adroitly twists and curves his tall frame into a short middle-school geek’s sad  self-image.

How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play.  It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity.  And the Illyrian Players, under her direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves.

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How I Learned to Drive, by the Illyrian Players, at Theatre Asylum; Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm, through April 13.<www.illyrianplayers.com>