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Driving into the darkness How I Learned to Drive'

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UMaine production offers powerful, disturbing drama

The power of live theater is undeniable; the stage allows for a visceral urgency that simply cannot be duplicated in any other medium. While disturbing and taboo subjects can be tackled by all forms of artistic expression, nothing captures them with the same level of immediacy that the theater does.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama 'How I Learned to Drive' by Paula Vogel running through Oct. 28 at the Cyrus Pavilion at the University of Maine addresses one such taboo (pedophilia) in a darkly straightforward manner.

'How I Learned to Drive' is the unsettling story of one young girl's increasingly inappropriate relationship with her uncle in 1960s rural Maryland. The tale unfolds in a series of vignettes that leap back and forth in time, offering a sadly powerful portrait of familial relationships that have taken a dark turn.

Li'l Bit (Allison Smith) is a smart young woman who feels trapped and put-upon by her family. Her mother (Goldie Irvine) became pregnant at a young age and struggles to find ways to communicate. Her grandmother (Michelle Green) is repressed and religious, while her grandfather (Jackson McLaughlin) is both a sexist and a bigot.

The only person in her entire family with whom Li'l Bit has any sort of real rapport is her Uncle Peck (Greg Mihalik). Peck seems to be the only person who can see past the surface to the real Li'l Bit beneath. However, Peck has his own agenda a dark and sinister need mostly hidden behind a helpful and giving faade.

Jumping back and forth in time, we slowly gain perspective on Bit's relationships. There are cut-away scenes, direct addresses to the audience and, of course, the driving lessons. Driving lessons that seem innocent on the surface soon convey volumes of sad and disturbing subtext. The audience bears witness to the disjointed development of a relationship between man and child that should never be.

'How I Learned to Drive' is an actor-driven piece; the fragmentary nature of the narrative requires strong performances to have any hope of coalescing. That starts at the top; without outstanding talents playing Li'l Bit and Peck, the battle is over before it begins.

Allison Smith is uniformly excellent as Li'l Bit. She carries a sense of sweetness throughout while also putting on a display of wounded innocence. Her Bit is eternally trapped on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood even when she grows up, the pain of her past prevents her from finding the equilibrium of adulthood. Portraying that balance is hard this is an extremely difficult role to play but Smith turns in a tour de force performance.

Matching her step for step is Greg Mihalik as Uncle Peck. Mihalik has been giving local audiences high-quality performances for some time now, but he has never been better. Despite his monstrous acts, his Peck is not himself a monster; he is a deeply flawed and disturbed man who has no real control of the choices that he makes. Mihalik informs Peck with a real sadness, somehow eliciting a degree of sympathy for a man whose deeds should have made him irredeemable.

However, great performances like those do not exist in a vacuum. The rest of the cast Irvine, Green, McLaughlin and Andrew Silver populate the world of the play, each playing multiple roles and building the sort of foundation without which Smith's and Mihalik's performances could not have stood. Each brings something very raw and real to the table.

Director Marcia Douglas has wrought something powerful. A play such as this one demands a strong concept and clarity of vision. Douglas obviously brings both, staging the show in the round (drastically renovating the Pavilion in the process) in order to ensure that the audience cannot help but be enveloped by the sad darkness of the piece.

Dan Bilodeau's starkly evocative set and lighting designs serve to punctuate the various gulfs between the people in this world. With a double yellow line cleaving the space in two, we are forced to confront those separations head-on. There are also some excellent multimedia moments that take place. The elements all conspire to envelope us in the world that Douglas and company have created.

'How I Learned to Drive' is theater that challenges. Addressing these sorts of issues isn't easy, nor should it be. The University of Maine School of Performing Arts deserves to be praised for having the courage to produce such a powerfully disturbing piece.

'How I Learned to Drive' is running through Oct. 28 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine Campus; this includes a noontime performance on Oct. 25. Tickets are $15 or free with student ID and are available at umaine.edu/spa or at the door.

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