Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How I Learned to Drive, Cleveland Play House

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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Great Wilderness, Beck Center

(From left: Christian John Thomas as Daniel and Tim Tavcar as Walt.)

If you want to write a play about gay conversion therapy, focusing on one young man named Daniel who is sent to a cabin in the woods for counseling, it’s a bold choice to have that young man disappear for most of the play. In a metaphorical sense it’s an interesting decision because the whole concept of gay conversion therapy blithely ignores the individuality of each person subjected to that misguided and often heinous “treatment.” So what could better express that than having the person in question absent?

The trouble is, the absence of Daniel for the bulk of the proceedings waters down the dramatic impact of A Great Wilderness by Samuel D. Hunter, leaving us with a large pot of weak tea. In this Beck Center production, the cast under the direction of Scott Spence does its best to enliven the story. But as you watch you keep asking yourself: “Sure, I get it, but where’s the kid?”

The kid, as it turns out, has gone for a walk in the woods soon after his arrival at the cabin and his first meeting with the elderly lead counselor Walt, who is both a gentleman and a gentle man. Walt tries to put Daniel at ease, telling the high school student that he won’t electroshock him or force him to be who he isn’t. Walt just wants Daniel “to be the person you want to be.” Unless, of course, that person happens to be gay.

Once Daniel (played with sensitivity by Christian John Thomas) takes a hike, the play is left in the hands of Walt and his ex-wife Abby (Lenne Snively) and her husband Tim (Brian Byers), who will be taking over the cabin once Walt adjourns to an assisted living facility. When Daniel fails to appear after many hours and appears lost, or worse, his mother Eunice (a haunted Heidi Harris) appears to spill some parental bile. For a bit of humor, a park ranger named Janet (Kelly Strand) shows up to deliver no-nonsense advice to those in the cabin.

Hunter writes very naturalistic dialog and has a good wit, but these adult characters are playing tennis without an opponent. They all essentially agree with each other regarding the benefits of curing gay men and, as they keep lobbing or slamming their arguments over the net, there is no one on the other side to return serve.

Sure, they have their own internal conflicts. For instance, Walt ponders whether he actually ever “saved” any young gay man from the terrors of gaydom. And he contemplates his own life, as a man who felt gay urges but who denied himself that option. In this role, Tim Tavcar exudes enveloping kindness towards Daniel even as he flashes anger at Abby and others, but the script defeats him at every turn. It isn’t until the end when Daniel finally returns that the play perks up, but then it’s over.

One could quibble about director Spence’s deliberate pacing throughout, but that would avoid the central problem of A Great Wilderness: It’s a drama with the drama expunged, leaving ancillary conversations in its place.

A Great Wilderness

Through April 9 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.