Ask a pedophile why he does what he does, and he will often throw the responsibility onto the victim, claiming that the child was provocative or wanted it. These protestations are always a steaming crock. But in How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, that kind of clarity is hard to come by. And that's part of what makes it fascinating.
This is the first production by the new None Too Fragile Theatre, headed by co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky, both of the defunct Bang and the Clatter Theatre. And while the production is not a total triumph, it scores enough small victories to augur well for their new company.
The play deals with Li'l Bit, a girl and woman represented at various ages from 11 to 30 during the course of the piece that takes place mostly in the 1960s. Hailing from a rough-and-tumble lower middle-class family in Maryland whose members all have nicknames based on some aspect of their genitalia, Li'l Bit finds herself spending time with her favorite Uncle Peck.
And whether it's because of the nicknames or not, there's a sexual component to uncle and niece's interchanges from the start. But as playwright Vogel structures the scenes, with time shifting forward and backward, it's never entirely clear who's driving this activity.
No doubt Uncle Peck is smitten with his niece (through marriage). But Li'l Bit is not exactly a helpless victim, at least in the conventional sense. All these shades of gray are there not to relieve the adult man of his responsibility, but to accent the pain that complex emotions like love and guilt can impose on people.
Other members of the family — including Li'l Bit's mother, grandparents and Aunt Mary, Peck's wife — comment on the relationship. Much of Vogel's wry humor comes out in these moments, especially when Mom (Maryann Elder) gives her daughter tips on how to keep her stuff together while drinking: no drinks with sugar, stick with one drink and don't leave your glass unattended when you go to the john.
Meanwhile, Grandma (Mary Jane Nottage) tries to scare Li'l Bit off sex, saying it hurts like the blazes, while sleazy gramps (Jim Viront) makes constant jokes about his granddaughter's developing breasts.
Given the theater's tiny stage, director Derry has decided to present these other family members via video, a technique that generates mixed results. While it neatly avoids trying to move more bodies around an admittedly small space, the absence of live actors is a bit of a letdown.
The only actors who appear in person are Romansky, as Li'l Bit, and Jeffrey Grover, as Uncle Peck. And their understated performances ring true. Even though Romansky tends to blur Li'l Bit's behavioral differences as she bounces back and forth in age, she conveys an intriguing blend of vulnerability and willfulness. For his part, Grover makes Peck seem almost equally at sea as he tries to deal with his feelings.
How I Learned to Drive is a challenging, often amusing and teasingly ambiguous play that's sure to trigger lots of post-show conversations.
Firing up audience minds is part of what None Too Fragile is about. As Derry explains, "We want to tell stories that need to be told, and we want to create emotions in our audience. We don't want to just be an escape, an entertainment."
Derry was co-founder with Sean McConaha of the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, which closed late last year due to financial strains and other reasons. While B&C was committed to doing shows new to the area, NTF will cast a wider net. "We will do shows that make people think, whether they've been done before or not," says Romansky. "And we believe this small, intimate space will help us connect with our audience."
Indeed, Derry and Romansky are modeling their theater as "indie film onstage," with an emphasis on quieter interactions among the actors, and between the stage and the audience. As Derry puts it, "A lot happens in the eyes, in the silences between the lines."
Since the theater seats only about 40, and all seats are right on top of the stage, it won't be hard to transmit those subtle signals.
None Too Fragile (the name refers to the fragility actors need to perform well) plans to mount several more productions this year. The next one, David Mamet's Romance, opens in June.