Several modern plays touch on abuse and molestation but none I know of, including the much-produced Doubt, wield the sheer force of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Vogel, celebrated as both a playwright and a teacher of playwriting, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for this look at the history of a woman and her uncle in a web of exploitation and defilement.
It’s a clearly written, nuanced, and immensely theatrical work — a narrative that Vogel seems to have built, deconstructed, then rearranged for maximum effect — and bringing it off demands well-considered acting and direction. Those are the hallmarks of the production by Theatre Horizon, which opened the play Friday in Norristown, its final show at Centre Theater before it moves a few blocks to its own new space that should be ready in the fall.
Theatre Horizon, in just a half-dozen years, has established itself as a professional suburban producer of edgy drama and over-the-edge musicals; in the drama division, director Kathryn MacMillan carves another notch in the company’s belt.
How I Learned to Drive calls for a sustained pace over its single hour-and-40-minute act, and while I wished for maybe 10 fewer minutes, I was by no means desperate. MacMillan’s staging mines the rhythm of scenes that go back and forth in the lives of its two main characters, and carefully maintain the glue between these scenes, when some characters address the audience directly.
The play uses driving instruction as a metaphor for general behavior — and, as it becomes shockingly clear, abuse. Uncle Peck has been enamored of the niece the family calls Li’l Bit since Day 1, when he held her in his hand. At age 11, she began to be his victim; by college, she was shaken to her core by the abuse.
One of Vogel’s triumphs is the way she fans the fire: The buxom Li’l Bit plays her own cards by being consciously seductive, spurred by her manipulative, creepy uncle. “Nothing is going to happen between us — until you want it to,” he tells her at several stages of her puberty, implying casually that she’ll give in with enough pressure. Moreover, he’s the adult in all this, a position of power he uses to ensure that something is, in fact, happening between them.
Joe Guzman plays Uncle Peck and is thoroughly inside the part, so much so that even when he smiles pensively, he exudes a subtle smarminess that makes you want to smack him just to erase the little grin. Christie Parker plays Li’l Bit with her own constant undertone, a mixture of irony, hurt, and a deep need to get her story out. Both are exceptional, backed wonderfully by Susan McKey in a variety of roles, one of which has her explaining, as she becomes ever more sloshed, the socially acceptable way for a proper wife to drink in the ’60s. (Alcohol figures into the play in a number of ways.)
Also excellent are Matteo Scammell and Sara Yoko Howard in several roles, and Jered McLenigan, the voice of the instructor who gives us driving tips throughout. The production benefits greatly from Christopher Colucci’s sound effects and plays out on Dirk Durossette’s roadway stage, with a yellow line down the middle, itself a metaphor. “You’re crossing the line,” Li’l Bit many times warns her uncle. He backs off, but never really stays in his lane.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
How I Learned to Drive
Presented by Theatre Horizon at Centre Theater, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown, through April 29. Tickets: $29. Information: 610-283-2230 or www.theatrehorizon.com.