Despite being about a man who has a sexual relationship with his teen-age niece, “How I Learned to Drive” is not quite as creepy as you might think.
Playing at the Salt Lake Acting Company through Dec. 13, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play uses humor and stylization to keep things from becoming a non-stop squirm-fest — though rest assured, the play can certainly make you squirm when it wants to.
The central character is Li’l Bit (Shauna Scott), a teen-age girl of Southern heritage whose real name we never learn. In her family, everyone receives nicknames based on their genitalia — hence grandfather Big Papa (Tobin Atkinson) and mom’s brother-in-law Uncle Peck (Eric Robertson). Offensive, sure, but the family background — which is revealed, as is the rest of the story, piece by piece via flashbacks and narrations — goes a long way toward explaining Li’l Bit’s complicated situation.
She occasionally seems to be the aggressor in the relationship with her uncle, using him to fulfill her need for a strong male figure (her father was not around); it is not until the end of the play that the oldest flashback is shown, demonstrating how the whole thing began with a driving lesson, and making it clear that Peck is to blame for it all.
Or is he? This is a complex play, without much black-and-white. Li’l Bit is a victim, to be sure, and Peck is the filthiest of scoundrels whose own motivations are merely hinted at — but they don’t always act those parts. Li’l Bit is sometimes a Lolita character, using her feminine wiles to get what she wants, and Peck is occasionally benign (yet with creepiness always lurking beneath the surface). Li’l Bit survives the ordeal and grows to adulthood, but by no means is there a “happy” ending, with her triumphantly overcoming everything she went through. Indeed, perhaps the most unsettling image of all is very near the end, when we are shown vividly how Peck continues to haunt the rear-view mirror of Li’l Bit’s mind.
Sound like fun so far? It’s not, of course — but it’s not an unpleasant evening, either. Three “Greek Chorus” actors (Tobin Atkinson, Teri Cowan and Kimberly Richardson) play the supporting characters, nearly all of whom are funny, sometimes cartoonishly so. Li’l Bit’s mom (Cowan) gives some truly hysterical advice on how a lady should drink (“Avoid anything with ‘voodoo’ or ‘vixen’ in the name”), and the three generations of women discuss men and sex with very amusing results. At one point, for reasons not fully explained, three supporting characters break out into an a cappella, fully choreographed rendition of “My Girl.”
The play is highly stylized, jumping back and forth in time and using “driving” as a constant metaphor. Since the actress playing Li’l Bit is a full-grown adult, seeing her fondled and manipulated by Peck is not as disturbing as it could be. And with Scott playing Li’l Bit at several different ages without so much as changing costumes, and most sets and props being only minimally represented, the play is thankfully “unrealistic” enough to help it go down easier.
Which is not to say “How I Learned to Drive” is not disturbing, unsettling, and occasionally graphic. It is all of those things. Robertson is vile as Uncle Peck, his monologue about fishing (which is a metaphor for his relationship with Li’l Bit) being one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a while. Scott is excellent as Li’l Bit, too, particularly with the constant change in ages for her. The supporting actors also play their variety of characters with gusto.
The play is an hour and 40 minutes long with no intermission, and it feels like every minute of it. It is never particularly boring or dragging, yet there are times when you begin to wonder what more needs to be said. Many different aspects of the relationship are shown, and the audience slowly begins to understand the whole situation. By the end, you feel like you’ve been through an ordeal yourself, having seen so much of it from so many points of view.
Ultimately, the play is classy, high-quality theater. It is not sensationalistic, nor is it unnecessarily lascivious. It is a gripping story that, while perhaps not for everyone, will provoke thought in anyone who sees it.
Often my friends will ask me about the plays I've recently seen, wanting to know what they're about, etc. No one seemed to want to hear much about this one after I told them the basics: "Well, it's about this teen-age girl who has sex with her uncle." Not that I blame them.