Indeed one undercurrent of the play is about how children learn about sex, a subject that rarely comes with the accurate instructions that accompany driver's ed. Learning about love is an altogether different matter. The poignancy of How I Learned to Drive is less about how Li'l Bit survives into adulthood bearing a wound than it is about how she is able to see Uncle Peck as a tragic figure. Still, the play doesn't sell short Li'l Bit's suffering. In one crucial scene, in which we see Peck violating the young Li'l Bit, the older Li'l Bit steps out of the scene to narrate, noting, "That day was the last day I lived in my body." It's clear even to her, however, that Peck has hit a different kind of dead end, obsessed with her and unable to connect with anyone else. Li'l Bit may have volumes of anger, but Peck has no purpose whatsoever.
Credit Vogel for the small miracle of having both characters come off as equal parts sympathetic and flawed. Li'l Bit is a fascinating role that allows a thespian to play a complicated character at different ages, and actresses are flocking to it. When the play opened off-Broadway, Mary Louise Parker starred; a recent production at Harvard's Loeb Drama Center featured Debra Winger. (Another production opens next season at the New Theatre in Coral Gables.) At the Caldwell Kim Cozort gives a remarkably articulated, high-energy performance. Her Li'l Bit is adventurous and curious, vulnerable and confused, all at the same time.
In casting the courtly looking David Forsyth as Peck, director Kay (who is Cozort's husband) is suggesting that we also see this character as something other than pure evil. That's important, and Forsyth (who was recently voted Best Villain by the All My Children fan club for his role as Jim Thomason on the ABC soap) doesn't disappoint, delivering a performance that's subtly multifaceted. His Peck is a Southern gentleman and a cad, and Li'l Bit is not the only person who won't be able to get his image out of her rear-view mirror.
Kay's decision to run the play (90 minutes plus change) without an intermission couldn't be more right. I can't think of any place I'd want to break the action. Besides, the show, in which Thomas Salzman's lighting design and Steve Shapiro's sound design add breathtaking emotional and sensual textures, takes us on a trip that, despite its disturbing twists and turns, needs no pit stops whatsoever.
How I Learned to Drive.
Written by Paula Vogel. Directed by Kenneth Kay. With Kim Cozort, David Forsyth, Dan Leonard, Jessica K. Peterson, and Viki Boyle. Through April 4. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton; 561-241-7432.