How I Learned to Drive

In celebration of its tenth season, Curious Theatre Company opens with a remounting of its first production and first hit, Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. With four of the five original cast members reprising their roles, the production reaches back across the decade on a variety of levels.

C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit
C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit
Photo credit: Doug Reed
Vogel's writing still stings with uncompromising honesty as we are let in on a 37-year old woman's memories of her coming of age and her conflicted memories of her uncle, whom she loved and who molested her.

From the opening moments, when a harsh unflattering overhead light strikes C. Kelly Leo's face and her throaty voice takes hold, we sense an edge to this production that wasn't present in the original, though also excellent, staging. Artists, like fine wine, improve with age, and the nuances that time brings are almost everywhere apparent in this production.

Paul Borrillo as Uncle Peck and C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit
Paul Borrillo as Uncle Peck
and C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit
Photo credit: Doug Reed
Leo, now a mother and the age of the protagonist in the present, informs her role in a way that only experience can, with poignancy wrought from awareness of the influence of family and upbringing. Yet, she has lost none of the girlish enthusiasm and wide-eyed innocence necessary to play Li'l Bit at age 12.

Despite the severe sexual dysfunctions of her family, Li'l Bit manages to accomplish what few victims do, asking who victimized her perpetrator. Leo's open-hearted and genial approach makes this wisdom not only believable, but natural.

Paul Borrillo as Uncle Peck
Paul Borrillo as Uncle Peck
Photo credit: Doug Reed
One might think these dynamics would paint the antagonist, Uncle Peck, as a prototypical "bad guy" and sexual deviant, but that is neither the intention of the playwright (who suggests casting him along the lines of the trustworthy Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird) nor the way Paul Borrillo portrays him.

If you had never seen this play, Borrillo's work would remind you of your favorite uncle—which he certainly is to Li'l Bit—who offers consolation from your parent's foibles and special treats that cater to your desire to be treated as a grown-up. But beneath Uncle Peck's easy demeanor and smooth Maryland drawl, Borrillo reveals an intensity born of some unspoken pain and the urgency of encroaching middle-age and its harsh judgments.

C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit and Denise Perry-Olson as Aunt Mary
C. Kelly Leo as Li'l Bit and
Denise Perry-Olson as Aunt Mary
Photo credit: Doug Reed
Vogel is in command of her material throughout, with insight into the most insidious details, for example, her use of Peck's wife, Aunt Mary, as the female Greek chorus: the ironies of her pronouncements redouble as she drinks herself into denial while her husband finds his pleasure elsewhere with her comely niece.

Denise Perry-Olson maintains a light touch with Mary's rationalizations and delusions, reflecting her character's refusal to blame her husband, focusing instead on what she believes to be Li'l Bit's manipulation of Peck; yet, she does not want Li'l Bit to grow up as uninformed and scared of sex as she was, thus, in a sense, enabling the young girl's seduction by her husband. Such are the twisted dynamics of such abuse.

Director Chip Walton explores new ground without losing any of the originality of the inaugural production. Despite a belabored musical introduction and a late opening lighting cue, the production quickly found its rhythm, with only a couple of scenes that fall short of their full potential.

Curious Theatre Company's production of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive runs through October 20th. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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