Review: ‘How I Learned to Drive’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (****)

by Charles Kruger

Preteen Li’l Bit (Amanda Farbstein) receives a disturbingly intimate driving lesson from her Uncle Peck (Eric Reid) in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer prize winner, “How I Learned To Drive.” Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Paula Vogel is one of the most awarded playwrights in the United States, and for good reason. Her Pulitzer prize-winning play about family sexual trauma, “How I Learned To Drive,” brilliantly displays her skill, and Custom Made Theatre’s revival is an outstanding production.

Li’l Bit looks forward to escaping her family drama by going away to college. Her sexually obsessed Catholic mother, grandmother, aunt, and grandfather are cringe-worthy in too many ways. Mom makes inappropriate sexual remarks, Grandpa boasts of having married a child bride, Grandma’s sexual advice is to warn that the first time will be painful, with a lot of blood, and implies that things will only get worse. Aunt Mary is in denial about her husband’s peculiarities.

Li’l Bit finds her only relief in the company of her beloved, though alcoholic, Uncle Peck, who carefully teaches her to drive, takes her on fishing trips and for special dinners, encourages her academic ambitions, and shares her excitement about her approaching 18th birthday.

But there’s a catch and it’s no nourishing fish. Uncle Peck is sexually obsessed with Li’l Bit and makes no secret of it, grooming her from childhood and turning their seemingly loving relationship into a long and terrifying seduction.

Vogel explores this disturbing affair through a brilliantly constructed drama. The story moves back and forth in time, and is thematically keyed to the various driving lessons.

Ultimately, we come to understand how Li’l Bit has made her peace with this history, and the price she has paid.

Although Vogel does not soft-pedal Peck’s horrible behavior, she nevertheless presents him (and the family-in-denial) with sympathy and understanding.

There are lots of funny moments along the way. The family members double as a sort of Greek Chorus, accompanying the story with songs to match the action and set the events in time. All of this is very charming. You may not laugh, though. I didn’t. The material was too disturbing. Others may also be triggered, and that, I suppose, is a warning. The night I attended, some audience members howled with laughter. Others were more sedate. I suspect all were deeply effected.

If you can stand the heat, this is a  remarkably good play, sensitively directed by Katja Rivera.

The entire cast is excellent, and Eric Reid’s complex and nuanced characterization of Uncle Peck is astonishing. This predator is genuinely sympathetic one moment,  frightening the next. He seems to be taken over by a compulsion he cannot fully understand or control. Watching Reid shift gears (an appropriate driving metaphor) is a lesson in fine acting.

“How I Learned to Drive” is an exceptional play that audiences will likely remember for a long time.

“How I Learned to Drive” plays at the Custom Made Theatre through October 7th. For further information, click here.

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Rating:  ****  (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“How I Learned To Drive,” by Paula Vogel. Produced by The Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Katja Rivera. Scenic Designer: Tom O’Brien. Costume Designer: Kathleen Qiu. Lighting Designer: Maxx Kurzunski. Sound Designer: Ryan Lee Short. Properties Designers: Cat Knight, Stephanie Dittbern.

Cast:

Li’L Bit: Amanda Farbstein. Peck: Eric Reid. Male Greek Chorus: David Schiller. Female Greek Chorus: Valerie Fachman. Teenage Greek Chorus: Gianna DiGregorio Rivera.

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