Terry Schreiber's stripped-down new production of Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer-Prize winner, How I Learned to Drive, is a taut exercise in the dramatization of adolescent sexual curiosity and confusion. It resides in that uncomfortable space where the line between predation and complicity cannot easily be drawn. Vogel names the three ensemble players Male, Female, and Teenage Greek Chorus, and it is through that lens of classic Greek tragedy that Schreiber allows this story to unfold. It is at once Li'l Bit's cathartic coming-of-age tale and the airing of our culture's secret collective shame. Hal Tine's stark, plain set is almost a character in itself. The stage is simply a raised wooden circle, painted white, with three equidistant carved strips running the length of it. Those strips extend up at an angle onto the black back wall and become the familiar yellow and white lines of a highway. In certain scenes, twinkling lights dance underneath the strips, reminding us of the distant streetlights that dot a highway.
Visual ties to the routine of driving—from the steering-wheel-like stage to the painted back wall—are always with us. And for good reason: How I Learned to Drive communicates via extended metaphor. Mundane human actions like driving and, in one scene, fishing become the coded or even ritualized language through which complex human interactions are better understood.
"This is as much a story about star-crossed lovers as Romeo and Juliet," said Schreiber, Drive's director, in the discussion that followed the performance I saw. Our narrator and guide in this love story is Li'l Bit (Erika Sheffer), an earnest woman who evokes her troubling past for us. We begin when she is a world-weary 17-year-old and, for the most part, travel straight back to her first encounter with her Uncle Peck when she was 11.
Sheffer's forthrightness allows this journey to be introspective, even challenging, without ever turning into a ghastly horror show. In short, though she must tell us of her uncle's long-nurtured sexual attraction to her, we always feel safe because her present self oversees what we know and when. Each scene pushes further into the past, and layers of history—the stolen moments, gestures, and promises—between Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck accumulate until the picture of their doomed liaison is complete.
The artistic progeny of Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Uncle Peck (Jess Draper) is a sympathetic predator who wants to control his niece as much as he wants her to control the wheel of his '57 Chevy Spirit. A veteran, Peck nurses old wounds first with alcohol and then through secret weekly conversations with Li'l Bit. She is his therapy and his escape, the nymphet who will perhaps save him from himself.
Draper's pitch-perfect performance is eerily candescent; he captures the soft, slow movement of a man whose Southern drawl rests on the air like a patient fishing line on water. In Peck we see the father Li'l Bit has never had, the boyfriend she is too awkward to seek out, and the nurturing companion she desperately needs. It is not until she is outside the increasingly claustrophobic space of that round stage—at 18 she accepts a scholarship to college—that she understands what a violation their relationship has been.
Trey Gibbons (Male Greek Chorus), Kira Sternbach (Teenage Greek Chorus), and Samantha J. Phillips (Female Greek Chorus) round out this exceptional cast. They all work overtime as the ignorant and crude family members, the unquestioning strangers who allow pedophilia to occur under their noses.
Phillips's monologue as Aunt Mary, Peck's quietly tolerant wife, gives a much-needed voice to those who too often do nothing. During that crucial scene, we better understand Peck's multifaceted nature: yes, he is a sexual predator, but he is also a dependable townsperson and a selfless husband. Instead of speaking out against him, she waits for the day Li'l Bit will go to college, so she can simply have her husband back.
But, by the play's end, we know the damage is already done. Peck is destroyed and Li'l Bit must drive on alone, checking the ghostly figures in her rearview mirror almost as often as she does the road ahead.