Theatre Mirror Reviews - "How I Learned to Drive"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Larry Stark

"How I Learned to Drive"

by Paula Vogel
Directed by Michael Tonner

Set and Lighting Design by John MacKenzie
Costume Coordinator Michelle Boll
Sound Engineer David Handley
Stage Manager Caitlin Lewis

Lil Bit......................................Kate Mahoney
Uncle Peck..................................Bill Doscher
Teen Greek Chorus....................Claire Gilbert
Female Greek Chorus.....Michelle M. Aguillon
Male Greek Chorus.................Jason Yaitanes

Two of the real stars of the Hovey Players production of Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" never appear on stage. They are Director Michael Tonner and Set & Lighting Designer John MacKenzie, whose unseen hands allow a comfortably fearless cast to bring to life a flawlessly executed examination of adolescence, sex, automobiles, family and perhaps incest in a movingly abstract, expressively human memory play.

MacKenzie, a smiling haystack of a man who manufactures miracles, has turned the Abbott Memorial Theatre's acting space into a deep, square black box in which a handful of chairs and tight area-lights invoke scenes, lectures, meditative memories, and howlingly funny bits of scurrilous reality. Across the back of this box is a single oblong of changing colors, at some points showing a star-filled, moon-lit sky of pale blue. Into this abstract space the actors move and sit and mime objects with their hands. Three (Michelle Aguillon, Claire Gilbert, Jason Yaitanes) are dressed in total black, only hands and expressive faces picking them out of the space. They are called "chorus" and in only a minimalistic few lines flit through a dozen or so different characters, from a waiter or giggling high-school girls to earthily uninhibited Southern family members. Often one or another of these figures remains, still onstage, as witness to other events, adding an odd tension to that black space.

The other two are dressed, mature, and specific characters throughout, though only one is real. Kate Mahoney is the narrator/protagonist here, expressing and often re-living her metaphoric driving-lessons pulled with effective irregularity from ages eleven to eighteen --- years in which her ballooning breasts and the sniggering hints of aunt and grandma keep her alive yet puzzled by the mysteries of sex.

Bill Doscher is her married uncle, a quietly ineffectual man whose cautiously growing obsession with her plays itself out through the intimacy of driving lessons, in exchange for which he quits alcohol. In a play boisterously frank with language, the private intimacies of this pair are almost subliminally suggested --- including their final, inevitable, tragic break.

Director Tonner has modulated this script into a seamlessly expressive whole, giving each actor moments of individuality --- probably the biggest Michelle Aguillon's lecture on how a lady can, with frequent well-timed trips to the Ladies', drink any man under the table while still preserving her chastity and her dignity. But Claire Gilbert's Grandma, insisting sex is pain and orgasms don't exist, and Jason Yaitanes' adolescent dancing-partner are stand-outs in what is actually an ensemble exercize in inter-acting for the whole cast.

This is a stunning example of a cinema-like script that becomes infinitely more moving when actors do it, live, on stage. And I think it a privilege to have seen it.


"How I Learned to Drive" (till 2 December)
The Abbott Memorial Theatre,

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide