October 2, 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 20  

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The dark underside of an American home

By Mark Bruder
Gazette Writer

How I Learned To Drive

Starring: John Turner, Julie Seip, Penny Eizenga, Dorothy Downs, Ray Bowen and the voice of Don Fleckser
Written by: Paula Vogel
Directed by: John Gerry

What ingredients are needed to cook up an all-American family?

To begin, it may be necessary to define the time period in question. Imagine the years 1962 to 1986, set in a 1955 Cadillac, parked on a back road in Maryland. The scene depicts an uncle and his niece sitting alone in his car, with the glare of the stars and moon on the tips of their fingers, as they slowly undress.

How I Learned To Drive, by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, is much more than a driver's ed class. It is the real life crash course of one little girl trapped in an incestuous and devastatingly dysfunctional family.

The main character is L'il Bit (Julie Seip), sexually named for what the parents saw when they first spread her legs after birth. Her family members have sexual nicknames as well, like Uncle Peck, Big Poppa or B.B. (for Blue Balls).

The plot is derived purely from the type of family one might see in the '60s era, with gender-based roles forced upon each family member. For example, the man of the house won't let his daughter go to school because he believes Shakespeare wouldn't help her lie on her back in the dark.

Seip's performance is seamless. With her character's age ranging from 13 to 35, she shows no signs of shifting into low gear, pumping out intricate and exhausting emotions for the entire 90 minutes.

Uncle Peck (John Turner), the disturbing and incestuous 45-year-old uncle-in-law, wears a symbolically heavy mask to shadow his pedophilia. His actions towards L'il Bit throughout her youth spark the events that unfold during the final half of the play. Turner gives a powerful performance, manipulating his role as much as his character manipulates others.

Other characters include Big Poppa (Ray Bowen), Big Mamma (Dorothy Downs) and Aunt Mary (Penny Eizenga). Jumping back and forth, playing at least five different roles each, these fine performers lighten the terrible mood created by Uncle Peck's deep, dark desires.

Many metaphors and similes based on driving come from The Voice (Don Fleckser), a God-like figure that gives helpful hints on whether one should direct their life in reverse or merely remain in neutral for the time being.

Eric Bunnell succeeds in creating a number of distinct settings, transforming the McManus Studio into a different world without resorting to flashy lighting, rock hard music or the allure of mist and smoke.

Overall, the haunting plot of How I Learned To Drive forces one to question if they themselves are indeed travelling on the right road of life or whether they have yet to learn all the "rules of the road."

Drive runs at the McManus Studio until Oct. 11. Tickets are $18 or $12 for students and can be purchased through the Grand Theatre box office (672-8800).



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