Child sexual abuse is a terrifically difficult subject to deal with on stage, for all the obvious reasons and a couple not so obvious. But ever since Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive in 1997, she set the standard for a subtle, slowly evolving portrait of a relationship that was at once horrific and nurturing. And it’s the nurturing part that makes the horror even more awful (if a person who appears to love me does this, where do I turn?).
The events in this memory play jump around in time, from when a girl nicknamed Li’l Bit was 11 until she’s 18. As was the custom in her family, she was named after her genitalia, which is how Uncle Peck got his moniker. He’s the second husband of Li’l Bit’s aunt, and during most of the play we see him dote on his niece and hover around her in uncomfortable but essentially non-felonious ways.
Along the way, as Peck teaches Li’l bit how to drive and establish her independence on the road, he manipulates and controls her in other ways. And we see how Li’l Bit’s physical attributes play a part in how males react to her, as she is teased at school for her large “jiggly” breasts. As every similarly endowed woman knows, those parts of the anatomy often draw all the attention and awkwardly tilt relationships with boys and men from the get go. And her mother makes it clear that her daughter is to blame for anything untoward that happens.
It isn’t until near the end of the play that we see 11-year-old Li’l Bit sitting on Peck’s lap behind the wheel as he first teaches her to steer the car. And that memory is so strained, so traumatic, that another actor has to speak her lines.
As the play continues, bad advice piles on top of bad acts. In “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” mom advises that when Li’l Bit is drinking in public and feels tipsy, she should go to the a bathroom and dunk her head in water, because a wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk one. Vogel uses these dramaturgical asides to pump the brakes or accelerate the stress, as required. And she negotiates the turns with the skill of racecar driver Mario Andretti at his peak.
Director Laura Kepley maintains a subtle, finely tuned tension throughout the piece, without overdoing any moments. And the cast handles their roles with similar restraint. As Li’l Bit, Madeleine Lambert conveys the angst of this girl and young woman in many muted ways. Michael Bruasco achieves a similar understated effect, although it might help to see a couple more glints of the predator in his portrayal. And three other actors—Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken—play a bevy of characters including Li’l Bit’s crotch-obsessed family.
There are many kinds of sexual abuse of minors. But when the abuse is doled out by a person whom you have grown close to and loved, the pain is beyond imagining. And this play comes as close as you can to that conflicted state without lapsing into easy regret and facile recrimination.
How I Learned to Drive
Through March 26 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.