note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
Paula Vogel would love the Hovey's "How I Learned to Drive". The A.R.T. gave Vogel's play a high tech, start studded production two years back, with Debra Winger and Arlis Howard as Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck (and lots of cute roadsigns flashed onto screens, like "No U Turn") but the Hovey's bare bones production gives the play depth and a poignancy the A.R.T. missed out on.
Director Michael Tonner plays up the comic scenes and slows down the serious stuff, and the contrast puts the subject matter into high relief. The A.R.T.'s production seemed to be played with the same intensity throughout. Vogel's daring examination of incest --- daring for its straightforward, non-inflammatory presentation --- gains emotional impact from Hovey's simple production.
Scenes with Uncle Peck move slowly, sotto voce, hypnotically --- the way they might have seemed to an eleven year old whose worldly uncle takes her under his wing (and under his weight). Their "special" relationship weighs heavily on the maturing woman, almost destroying her until she finds peace and forgiveness.
Tonner adds a dimension Vogel only hints at in the beginning of the play. The little girl's mother unwittingly (?) pimps for Uncle Peck by suggesting he go after her and soothe her after a family row. ("He's so good with children" the mother says.) Tonner goes one step further by having Peck's wife stand in the background watching Peck and her niece, thereby driving home the point that she knew (consciously or unconsciously) what was going on. Vogel never mentions any statistics about incest; she offers no clinical information; but she implies that families consent to incest by doing nothing to stop it.
The Hovey cast is simply incomparable. Kate Mahoney gives an extraordinary performance as the confused, conflicted youngster who loves the attention her uncle pays to her but hates what goes with it. Bill Doscher plays Peck as a sad, sweet, pathetic man whose soft, reassuring words ("We won't do anything you don't want to do") sends horrid chills down the spine. It's a masterful performance making Peck a wounded man, someone Li'l Bit wants to help.
The Greek Chorus are three talented actors who play all the other roles. Michelle M. Aguillon brings down the house as Li'l Bit's tipsy mother, delivering the outrageous "woman's guide to social drinking". Aguillon also portrays Peck's wife, with a steely, cold resolve which could freeze milk into ice cream. Jason Yaitanes gets to flex his comic muscles as Li'l Bit's obscenely gross grandfather, as a disapproving waiter and as a naive young traveller on a bus, among other roles. Claire Gilbert plays Li'l Bit's opinionated grandmother and a giddy teenager at a dance, again among other roles.
All the action is played (with chairs suggesting the car) in front of a screen which lighting and set designer John MacKenzie transforms into gorgeous starlight or clear sky or an empty silhouette for pitiful Uncle Peck. Michele Boll's costumes are pared down to the essentials, too. Every move, every detail focuses the audience on Vogel's cautionary tale.