Driving along unassuming Washington, Pa.'s Main Street on a quiet evening, you might not know that, up a flight of stairs behind closed doors, something provocative and out-of-the ordinary is occurring. That is, unless you have already gone up those stairs and experienced first-class professional actors in high-quality performances at Off The Wall Theater.
That's where you'll now find a solid production of Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prizer How I Learned to Drive. It's directed by perceptive Linda Haston and features the always-admirable talents of Erika Cuenca and Lissa Brennan (the latter an occasional CP contributor). They're joined by less-familiar Ronald Siebert, who has major credits everywhere and now teaches at Carnegie Mellon. Actors Allison Cahill and F.J. Hartland complete the excellent ensemble.
The narrator, known only by her family nickname, "L'il Bit," looks back on her sexually loaded, still-vivid relationship from ages 11 to 18 with her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck. Side-trips include re-visiting the dynamics of her rural Maryland family and how she dealt with becoming a pair of breasts instead of a person.
While Vogel created a Lolita-like story, unlike Nabokov, she does not satirize our culture. But, like him, she looks inside something sensational to expose complex human needs.
Vogel delves into L'il Bit's emerging sexuality and confused sense of self along an always-changing road to womanhood. Vogel imaginatively does so by having her cast recite driver's instruction manuals while evoking symbolic road signs, as if L'il Bit is still trying to find her way. The play also takes a variety of routes into the past, backward, forward and sideways. Vogel's insightful character development makes it clear that both Uncle Peck and L'il Bit follow unpredictable paths, full of ambivalence; and not everything about them gets clearly resolved and understood. Brilliantly, Vogel reminds us that such behavior cannot be simplified.
Erika Cuenca infuses the role of L'il Bit with innocent vulnerability. And Ronald Siebert gives Uncle Peck deep, sympathetic dimension, admirably avoiding obvious lecherousness. Credit director Haston for that, too, as well as for how she and Hartland simply but creatively define a variety of supporting men's roles.
Small wonder that, in its 1997 debut, this short but loaded play won five other major awards, and that many theater companies admire and explore it.
How I Learned to Drive continues through Sat., March 28. (Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m.) Off The Wall Theater, 147 N. Main St., Washington, Pa. 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com