Encore Michigan

“How I Learned to Drive” is well worth the trip to Two Muses

Review April 03, 2016 Frank Anthony Polito

WATERFORD TWP., Mich.–How I Learned to Drive is a wonderful play. It won its author, Paula Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Chances are you’ve already seen a production or two in the almost 20 years since it first premiered off-Broadway. But if you haven’t, you should drive yourself out to Monster Box Theatre in Waterford Twp. to see this compelling offering.

The story follows the strained sexual relationship between a young girl called Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck (familial nicknames given for their sexual connotations), from adolescence through her teen years and beyond. It uses the metaphor of driving and focuses on the issues of pedophilia, incest and misogyny while exploring the ideas of control and manipulation. In other words, it makes for a real “up” evening.

But, in the hands of Two Muses director and producer Diane Hill, it does!

As the mission of Two Muses is “to provide opportunities for women in theatre and to promote female artists and artisans,” Hill’s choice to cast four women and only one man adds a profound layer to her production, absent from the original. (The script calls for a male, female and teenage Greek Chorus. Hill’s is comprised of three women.) Not only does this choice make Uncle Peck even more an outsider, there’s something refreshing and quite funny about watching a woman take on the role of Li’l Bit’s sex-starved grandfather, Big Papa, or that of a young boy asking Li’l Bit for a dance just so he can watch her breasts jiggle.

The actors here are all first rate. As Li’l Bit, Dani Cochrane carries the show, believable as a precocious 11-year-old girl as she is a mature 35-year-old woman. Cochrane’s moments of direct audience address, often awkward, are easily-delivered with confidence. Her scenes with Dennis North as the sweet-talking Uncle Peck are both humorous and heartbreaking, as Li’l Bit fights against the demons — and love — inside her. As Peck, North portrays a pedophile as a suffering human being. He uses his sweet-talking ways, and handsome good looks, to manipulate his niece into falling for him. All the while we, the audience, can clearly see just how sick and in pain the man truly is.

Members of the Greek Chorus include Melissa Beckwith, Sarah Burcon and Amy Morrisey, each playing a number of characters. Among Beckwith’s most memorable is Li’l Bit’s outspoken grandmother, who tries scaring Li’l Bit into abstaining from sexual relations with tales of horror. Burcon’s primary choral role of Li’l Bit’s single mother is a serious one, but she’s also quite the comedienne during a drunken dinner scene. As Li’l Bit’s aunt, Morrisey subtly tackles the role of a woman who is not nearly as naïve as everyone thinks, and who wants nothing more than to get back her husband from the niece who unwillingly stole him. She’s also a hoot as the burly Big Papa, chasing grandma around the dinner table!

Scenic designer Ryan Ernst does an excellent job filling the cavernous space with a multi-leveled set that evokes the play’s agricultural farmland setting. Ernst’s design serves the actors and the action well, providing areas that play as the family dining room, a footbridge for fishing, a hotel room and, most impressively, the vehicle where Li’l Bit spends time with her uncle learning how to drive.

Sound design, credited to Ken Faulk and director Hill, adds yet another dimension to the charming production. With most of the story taking place in the 1960s, the choice of period pop music instantly sets the tone for the journey on which we are being taken. It’s not always easy to keep our eyes on this road. But, in the end, the trip is well-worth it.

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Week of 10/16/2017

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