Lessons to be learned

This crude production of a brilliant play needs refinement

In a good production, Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive is a richly ambiguous work about sexual abuse, personal power, coming of age and the strategies of denial. It's a tale in which Li'l Bit, the young woman regularly groped by her Uncle Peck, also learns that her sexuality gives her leverage she otherwise lacks, and in which Peck, who's married and ought to know better, becomes so dependent on his young victim that he drinks himself to death when she's no longer available.

It's a tale in which Li'l Bit's family is both the source of badly needed information about sex and a regular violator of sexual privacy; and it's a story in which the one person who seems to acknowledge Li'l Bit's dignity is the same man who hopes one day to sell his photos of her to Playboy. Its wisdom and originality, candor and complexity make How I Learned To Drive one of the best American plays of the last 20 years, and one that amply deserved its 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In a good production, it's as deep and unaccommodating as life itself.

Unfortunately, the current version of the play being produced by Hat Trick Theatre is not very good. That doesn't mean it's wholly unsatisfying; this play is so special that even a crude production has a certain irreducible force. But most of what makes How I Learned To Drive so unusual, most of its wealth of ambiguities, is lost in the version playing at the Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City.

If you were lucky enough to see the same play at American Stage several years ago, you discovered just how comic and surprising and ultimately sad Vogel's work is. But the Hat Trick example comes from a different planet. On a set that looks like a much-misused bedroom in a derelict brothel, with oddly slung drapes against mottled red walls, the denizens of this Drive tell a loud, simple story in which everything is writ large and all nuances and subtleties are crushed underfoot.

The two main actors — Jonelle Meyer as Li'l Bit and Bob Gonzalez as Uncle Peck — give two- and three-note performances (on a piano of 88 keys), and the three other multipurpose actors (whom Vogel calls her "Greek Chorus") come across so bluntly that it's all but impossible to distinguish one impersonation from the next.

And still the show retains some potency — miraculously, mercifully. I imagine that if you haven't seen or read it before, it may even be suspenseful. But I must insist on this: Drive is nothing short of brilliant, so don't let the coarseness of the Hat Trick version convince you otherwise.

The play tells several stories, all of them about sexual coming of age. When still a child, Li'l Bit — so named because that's all her family members found when they looked between her legs on the day she was born — is told by her Uncle Peck that he will teach her to drive. But once she sits in his lap and puts her hands on the wheel, he reaches around and cups her breasts — and then puts his hand under her blouse.

So begin years of sexual encounters between the two, though Peck never demands intercourse and always insists that he'll only do what Li'l Bit feels comfortable with. But while Bit is the victim of Peck's sexual advances, she's also experimenting with her power over the man. She allows him to take her to classy restaurants where he treats her like an adult; she permits him to photograph her (clothed) as if she were a top model; and she even thinks she can persuade him to stop drinking.

At home, over these same years, her mother and grandparents talk sex all the time, and at school, Li'l Bit is razzed by other students when her breasts begin to develop. Finally, she turns 18, and is no longer subject to the laws of statutory rape. But how will she respond when Peck makes his long-delayed move? And what has she already lost that she'll never regain?

The key to making the play work is letting its contradictions breathe, letting them come to the surface with all their perplexing, exasperating power. But Meyer and Gonzalez, as directed by Joe Winskye, avoid every paradox in favor of a simple through line. So Meyer comes across as naïve, a little goofy, basically uncomfortable with Uncle Peck's sexuality, and always the victim, never the perpetrator. Gonzalez, meanwhile, plays Peck as a slightly melancholy sexual predator who's not very intelligent, not particularly upright (though Vogel says in her stage directions that he should be played by an Atticus Finch-type) and too creepy to keep up this deception without exposure.

Neither actor appears to have a thought in his or her head besides what the script has them saying. As the Greek Chorus, April Bender, Kyle Porter and Jamie Delgatti are not much more interesting, though Delgatti does well as Li'l Bit's opinionated grandmother. But a prime moment for notable acting — Bender's confession, as Peck's wife, that she knows something's up — is played without a trace of irony, and maybe Bender and Porter are just too young to share the stage with the older Gonzalez.

Lani McGettigan's costumes are harmless enough, but the sloppy red set, by Jeff Boe, is a puzzle I'll never solve. I've come around to the idea that the Silver Meteor can look spiffy when designed by a clever artist; but this set is so slovenly that it undercuts the play — and the theater around it. At least the car seat in the foreground ignores the bordello in the back.

I don't want to be pessimistic: Hat Trick Theatre is only two years old, still learning to walk. If the last few shows are any indication, what the theater needs now is more rigorous casting and more subtle directing. It's not enough to choose fine plays: There's nothing so well written that it can survive too simplistic a concept, too approximate an actor. Even Shakespeare can be done badly — and often is. The joining of a director who sees deeply into a drama with the actors who can turn that vision into reality — well, it doesn't come easy. And in an area like Tampa Bay, the right personnel may be simply unavailable.

In which case, what do you do: Put on the play badly or not at all?

Choose something else, is what I'd say.

Lest the alternative be as unsuccessful, as inartistic as the current How I Learned To Drive.

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