Review: ‘How I learned to Drive’ at Dominion Stage

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Dominion Stage presents Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. This raw, piercing piece won Vogel the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998, and after experiencing it at Dominion Stage, I understand why. An insightful play that studies some of our society’s most uncomfortable topics, Sharon Veselic deftly directs a powerhouse cast through some extremely difficult material. Both harrowing and cathartic, this is a show that will stay with you long after seeing it.

The cast of How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Matthew Randall.

Master Carpenter and Set Designer Jon Roberts keeps the intimate black-box theatre simple, using projection screens to display scenery, also designed by him, throughout the show. The only real prop piece is a twin bed that sits side-stage and goes unused for the majority of the show. It’s an ominous presence – a tense reminder that a scene is coming where it will be needed.

Lighting Designer Michael Page uses solemn blues and spotlighting effects to focus the narrative, while Sound Designer Ben Allen enhances the atmosphere with effects like a humming car engine or a running river. The technical elements are professional and effective, but the soul of this show lies in its performances.

How I Learned to Drive is a memory play, narrated largely out of order by Lil’ Bit, in a fantastic, poignant performance by Brianna Goode. A grown woman, she begins by lovingly describing growing up in rural Maryland; peaceful country roads and warm, welcoming weather. However, she becomes visibly flustered as she continues, and grows angry as her Uncle Peck (Keith Cassidy, whose performance will make your skin crawl– and given his role, he should take that as a compliment!) muscles his way into her memories.

What follows is a study of patient, subtle manipulation between not only a growing child and her uncle, but of an entire family. Peck is not presented as a “creepy” man at all; dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a button down (thoughtful costume consideration on Designer Larissa Norris’ part), he’s a charismatic man, charming and dependable. A supportive figure since her birth (when he “held her in one hand”), the audience watches helplessly as Peck crafts an expert web of trust during her formative years. He listens and comforts her after her family upsets her with their shallow teasing. He is a source of consistent praise and encouragement. He even offers to teach her how to drive. The poor girl never stood a chance.

Brianna Goode in How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Matthew Randall.

Each scene is introduced with a driving instruction, a theme used as a powerful metaphor throughout the production. In doing so, the play spills with lessons. It wonders at many things; What creates an abuser? How can something so insidious be so imperceptible? Why is blame placed upon the victim?

Eventually, Uncle Peck’s increasingly suggestive behavior stirs suspicion in other family members, but not enough for them to take any real action. In fact, the manipulation has run so deeply that Lil’ Bit is shamed by her own family and given just as much, if not more, responsibility for the abuse itself.

Victimization is heavily studied here, and is, unfortunately, a relevant topic that needs to be considered and discussed. As long as mothers keep telling their daughters that they’re “asking for trouble,” this play is necessary.

Aside from Peck, Lil’ Bit’s family has deep troubles of their own. Paul Donahoe, Gayle Nichols-Grimes, and Bryna Parlow take on a variety of roles, including Donahoe as Lil’ Bit’s mouthy, misogynistic grandfather and Nichols-Grimes as her alcoholic mother.

A particularly powerful scene shows two flashbacks in tandem; Lil’ Bit’s mother giving her ill-informed advice on “social drinking,” and a “celebration dinner,” where Peck spoils his underage niece with drinks as a reward for passing her driver’s license exam. Both women become more and more inebriated as the scene unfolds, and more susceptible to the powers of persuasion.

There are some much needed moments of levity, mostly from Gayle Nichols-Grimes’ characters, including several stark conversations between her and her own mother – a passive, conservative role played by Parlow. The actors all give masterful, memorable performances, and handle the sensitive material with respect.

Dominion Stage’s How I Learned to Drive isn’t the easiest to sit through, and you’re in for an intense, emotional evening for sure, but this play demands to be seen. You won’t regret it!

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

How I Learned to Drive plays through May 19, 2018, at Gunston Theatre Two – 2700 S. Lang Street, in Arlington, VA.  For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.