Tainted love

DTC's powerful How I Learned to Drive offers a crash course in taboo relationships

If some actors, directors, and designers from Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas theater scene didn't already want to restrain me atop a stone temple and yank my beating heart out like one of those S.R.O. Aztec sacrifice rituals, they will now: I'm writing a review of a preview performance. The first preview performance. It's not my fault; there were scheduling conflicts too involved to get into here. Just use anesthetic before you cut; I was once like you.

Right before a crowded house sat down to watch DTC's first public run-through of Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, director Jonathan Moscone warned folks that the actors might need to stop. That didn't happen, thank God. But the itch from the invisible hairshirt of guilt I donned to see this preview irritated somewhat less--thanks to the analgesic of paying for my own ticket. Sixteen bucks. And that was the cheapest you could purchase for a preview performance. I considered this my own personal sacrifice for seeing a preview, but if the show had stopped or proven to be terribly inconsistent, and I didn't know that the word "preview" meant "this show might stop or be terribly inconsistent," I would've been ready to perform a little unlicensed surgery myself.

As it turns out, my guilt was further assuaged by the sterling debut try-out given by the cast and the tech crew. By the time you read this, How I Learned to Drive will have just officially opened. Whatever tweaks director Moscone thinks the show may need will have surely been fixed, but quite frankly, most of the audience seemed to respond as if it were opening night. The show alternated between wide laughter from ticket-buyers and periods of silence that were tense and stretched thin, the kind where people seem to be barely breathing because they're so busy trying to process unusual takes on emotional subjects. And How I Learned to Drive is nothing if not unusual: a heavily comic play about the protracted romance between a female adolescent and her charming uncle. And I don't use the word "romance" recklessly here: Vogel's emotionally microscopic script posits the near-revolutionary notion that you can be nurtured and used at the same time.

In DTC's production, How I Learned to Drive forces us to examine how we really feel in the harsh headlights of a car: Scenic designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind have placed an automobile squarely over the heads of the actors, as though all are about to be run down if they stand in the wrong place for too long.

The play opens with the late-night, parked-car exchange between a young woman nicknamed Li'l Bit (Terri Lamm) and an older man known as Uncle Peck (Terry Beaver). He wants to touch her breasts, but won't force himself on her; she is uncertain, but clearly interested in his proposition. We quickly discover that they are niece and uncle, of course: He's a World War II veteran who falls off and then climbs back on the drinking wagon, but confidently straddles the pure, ingratiating ride through life that his South Carolina gentleman's accent takes him on. She's the awkward, inquisitive child who's probably too smart for the crude, antagonistic family who doesn't want to see her graduate to better things. Mom (Tara Gibson) is a tight-skirt-wearing survivor of the sexual wars, who simultaneously tells her daughter that sex is pleasurable and that men are not to be trusted. Grandma (Charlotte Akin) is rather more outspoken about sex than your average grandmother, but it's mostly negative: She insists "men are bulls," refuses to believe that such a thing as an orgasm exists, and wants to terrify her granddaughter with how painful the whole act is so the girl will stay clean until she marries. Grandpa (Jeremy Schwartz) hobbles on a walker but still manages, appropriately, to bellow like a bull at all these female machinations: We learn he is well endowed and has been nicknamed appropriately. This family has the habit of nicknaming many of its members by their genitalia, including Uncle Peck and Li'l Bit.

In this sexualized atmosphere, these two are attracted to and repelled from each other like electrically charged ions. Vogel cannily saves the most outrageous, undeniably criminal moment for the final scene; what unfolds beforehand is a tumultuous exchange in which Li'l Bit, who's been enthusiastically but never threateningly pursued by Uncle Peck, finds that she both loves and desires him, perhaps because he is one of the few people who has encouraged her mind.

A word about the incest angle that has been played up so much in reviews and interviews: The uncle is related to the niece only by marriage, so their troubled fumblings are incestuous legally, not genetically. You may consider this a minor point, but fathom the whole of Vogel's episodic script as it hops back and forth between the '60s and '70s, and you'll probably realize that the pathology displayed here is pedophilia. And even this crime is diluted by Vogel's fearless representation of a perpetrator who so sincerely loves (or so he thinks) a child he seduces that his affections continue even when she comes of legal age.

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