`How I Learned To Drive' is polished and compelling

Review: Washington production benefits from director's link to the prize-winning drama.

April 30, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In Arena Stage's compelling production of "How I Learned To Drive," the central couple's attraction for each other has the power of a magnetic force. He looks at her, and her eyes lock endearingly on his. He strokes her face, and her head drifts to his shoulder.

All this would be enchanting if she weren't a minor and he weren't married, twice her age and her uncle.

Arena's production is the third I've seen of Paula Vogel's imaginative 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and it's the most fascinatingly complex yet. It makes perfect sense that this third time would be charmed. The production is directed by Arena's new artistic director, Molly Smith, who had the same post at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska, where Vogel wrote and developed the script.

This is actually the fourth time Smith has directed "How I Learned To Drive," and not only does she negotiate its numerous twists and turns with finesse, she reveals new levels in both the writing and the characters.

Although the play is set in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, the male protagonist, Uncle Peck, is a Southerner, and for the first time, in his language I detected a touch of the literary flavor of the early Truman Capote.

As played by bearded, tweedy Kurt Rhoads, Peck has the gently handsome air of a professor, specifically, the type of professor all the girls have a crush on. (And in this case, the type who's eventually dismissed for inappropriate behavior.) But Rhoads also reveals flashes of anger that suggest how hard Peck works to maintain the courtly demeanor of the kindly Southern gentleman.

Deirdre Lovejoy's portrayal of Li'l Bit, Peck's niece by marriage, is also impressively layered. Narrated by an adult Li'l Bit, the play uses driving lessons as a metaphor for sexual experience, with the action moving mostly in reverse. Lovejoy keeps just a whiff of adult awareness hovering over her re-enactments -- especially the crucial penultimate scene between Peck and 11-year-old Li'l Bit. In so doing, the actress reinforces one of Vogel's most important points, the realization that, though she may be scarred, Li'l Bit is a woman who has managed to keep going.

Just before this final flashback, there's a scene in which Li'l Bit shows us her last meeting with Uncle Peck, in a Philadelphia hotel room. All of the other roles in "How I Learned To Drive" are played by a three-person Greek chorus (Sarah Marshall, Rhea Seehorn and a hilarious Timmy Ray James). In the Philadelphia scene, Marshall and James stand silhouetted on the upper level of the set. Together with Li'l Bit, they take turns reciting a speech titled, "Recipe for a Southern Boy," and the languid, seductive feel of their words is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams -- yet another reference mined by this production.

As designed by Kate Edmunds, the back wall of the set is painted mostly blue and red -- bright primary colors interspersed with suggestions of traffic lights and stop signs. It's a design well-suited to a production whose bright, comic scenes are always only moments away from its darkest recesses.

In the end, "How I Learned To Drive" isn't just about driving or pedophilia or dysfunctional families; it's a lesson in how to navigate the treacherous road of life -- a journey depicted at Arena with great clarity and understanding.

`How I Learned To Drive'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m.

Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Through June 20

Tickets: $26-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

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