‘How I Learned to Drive’ in the #MeToo Era

HowILearned2DriveWhat was it like 21 years ago when Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” premiered off Broadway?

It was more shocking, maybe; probably more balanced with laughs; and perhaps challenging in presenting audiences with a story of ongoing, predatory pedophilia from a family member.

The D.C.-born playwright had developed it with another D.C. theater legend the director Molly Smith, in Juneau and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Next month, Vogel, one of America’s most heralded contemporary playwrights, will have works open both at Arena Stage, offering a regional premiere of her Tony-nominated “Indecent,” and at 1st Stage with “A civil Way christmas.” Her play “The Baltimore Waltz” comes to the Keegan Theatre in January. But the season starts with a revival of Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.

In some ways, it’s perfectly suited there, recalling a Maryland “before the malls took over,” when there were farmhouses and endless byways on which to learn driving, but also to forget one’s problems; where historic Eastern Coastal inns are out-of-the way places to seduce a niece. And there are the expanse of parking lots at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center where one could learn to drive — or meet a randy uncle once a week.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is simply terrific in the central role, introducing the story as a wizened 34 year old, but easily tumbling back in time in innocence and a higher voice to her early- and pre-teens as the work requires.

Staging “How I Learned to Drive” in the #MeToo era, when after a year of revelation, reckoning and downfall of predatory men in the highest ranks of several fields — not to mention the continuing scandal of the Catholic Church — has made us by now nearly deadened to the shock.

There’s a knowingness and pervasive dread that surrounds the play the way it might not have in 1997.

One thing for sure, there’s no mistaking Peter O’Connor’s Uncle Peck as the slimy villain from the moment he enters. Early reviewers complained that the character was too charming a pedophile, according to Round House dramaturg Gabrielle Hoyt.

That would never be the case here, with his oily and handsy uncle with his South Carolina drawl a major creep from the get-go, who only gets worse.

Some of what he says might have even gotten laughs at one time — and there are segments of “How I Learned to Drive,” usually involving a family that was a little too fixated on body parts, that still got an odd guffaw on opening night 2018.

But for most, the pervasive sexism and misogyny, multiplied by our crude political times (in which our President called his porn star mistress horseface in an official emission), only made the dread descend even further.

If there’s another aspect that dates the play, it’s the reliance on heavy automotive metaphor — putting on the brakes, staying in the lane, pedal to the metal that sound as obvious as the illuminated highway white line that is about the only feature in Paige Hathaway’s stark set; the bare back wall becomes a space for Jared Mezzocchi’s projections of roads and time settings.

Leading the three-person “Greek chorus” who take up a number of roles, Emily Townley’s considerable comic talents are tested in a segment on advice to young women drinking (that still feels a bit icky under the circumstances). Craig Wallace is a resident artist with considerable presence and power but still doesn’t seem right for the roles he gets here – a racist white grandfather and nervous teen. For her part, Daven Ralston, the youngest of the three, gets to be grandma. (All three get tunics by costumer Ivania Stack, owing to the Greek derivation of the chorus, I suppose).

The main action is between Keegan’s unfortunately named Lil’ Bit and O’Connor’s Peck. And if there was ever any thought that she might have helped bring on her own fate by agreeing to her uncle’s prodding or succumbing to her own neediness or confusion, that has been eliminated by time or Amber Paige McGinnis’ direction.

For all that it has going for it, the solid production still qualifies as difficult watching that compounds more than illuminates our fraught times.

 

“How I Learned to Drive” continues through Nov. 4 at Round House Theatre, Bethesda. 

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