Reckless Driving

Li'l Bit, the haunted protagonist of How I Learned to Drive, compares her Uncle Peck to the Flying Dutchman, the legendary figure condemned to travel the Earth until a maiden loves him of her own free will. The play, which won author Paula Vogel the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama, goes one Li'l Bit further, asking in a deceptively simple way whether any of us love each other of our own free will. And what if, it inquires, those whom we love and who love us don't have our best interests in mind?

Set in rural Maryland, 35 miles outside Baltimore, How I Learned to Drive takes place over three decades. It's a memory play narrated by the grown-up Li'l Bit, now in her forties, who looks back over several decades of her tumultuous family life, during which she had an affair -- if that's the word -- with her Uncle Peck, the husband of her mother's sister. At the Caldwell Theatre Company, where the play has recently opened, memory and road signs, angst and highway violence merge in a magnificent production under the deft and inventive direction of Kenneth Kay.

Is Drive a play about incest? (Vogel herself has called it a "mammary play," thanks to two overdeveloped aspects of the young Li'l Bit that attract Peck.) It's not about incest in the way that, say, the novel Bastard Out of Carolina (which milks the subject for lurid sensationalism) is about incest. And Vogel isn't out to prove a sociological point along the lines of recent studies suggesting sexual molestation is such a common occurrence in the lives of young girls that some child development experts now consider it a grisly rite of passage. Rather she's exploring something more complex: the ambiguous nature of inappropriate relationships and what they say about whom we love and why.

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On one half of Tim Bennett's exquisite set, which is decorated by billboards and bisected by an uphill path suggesting a highway, we see Li'l Bit cavort with her grandparents, her mother, and her mother's sister, Aunt Mary. On the other side, in a car represented by two straight-back chairs, we see Li'l Bit (Kim Cozort) and Uncle Peck (David Forsyth) set off for destinations unknown. Slide projections flash pages from a driver's ed handbook on signposts above the road. "Yield," they say, or "Stop," ominous reminders that what is going on in Uncle Peck's car is something that doesn't come with its own set of guidelines. Instead the two make up their own rules of the road. "We're just enjoying each other's company," is how Uncle Peck describes their outings.

For all his prurient gropings, Uncle Peck is actually teaching Li'l Bit to drive. The car is a refuge for him, a place where he goes to find peace of mind, to soothe the fire in his heart, as he puts it. He has a relationship with the car that transcends anything he has with human beings, including Li'l Bit. A solitary Vietnam vet, whose wife cherishes him because he's a good provider (he also does the dishes), Peck is haunted by the war; he suffers bad spells and he drinks too much. But he wants to pass on something to Li'l Bit. "I don't have a son," he says. "I want to give you something." He reaches out to protect her by teaching her how to survive on the road. Can he help it if the child -- and later the young woman -- tacitly agrees to give him something in return?

Vogel, whose 1992 Obie-winning play, The Baltimore Waltz, was an elegiac dream sequence about her brother who died of AIDS, has constructed Drive's narrative like the proverbial onion. The play peels back its episodes (most of which are narrated by the adult Li'l Bit) and lets us see inside its characters' lives. By the time it reaches the essential pithy revelation about the history of Li'l Bit and Peck's relationship, we're forced to shift through all the previously shed layers, re-examining them for signs and scars we didn't notice before. A monologue Peck delivers about fishing in the middle of the play, for example, suddenly seems to be less about fish and more about reeling in a different sort of prey.

Surrounding Li'l Bit are any number of additional predators, from the kids at school who gawk at her expansive bosom to her gnarly old grandfather, who wonders why she wants to go to college and study Shakespeare when it won't make her any better in bed. When Grandpa gets to heaven, Li'l Bit retorts, he may find that God is a "beautiful black woman in a long white robe" who is pissed because Grandpa voted for George Wallace. Vogel has dubbed these auxiliary characters, who are played by the other three members of the cast (Viki Boyle, Jessica K. Peterson, and Dan Leonard), the Greek Chorus.

Of these three Peterson particularly shines, delivering a monologue titled "A Mother's Guide to Social Drinking," in which she imparts advice. One tidbit recommends that Li'l Bit could sober up by wetting her face and clothing should she become incapacitated by alcohol because "a wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk woman." In addition to showing off the sharp acting chops of the cast, these characters fill Li'l Bit's world with a variety of sexual information. When Li'l Bit asks if a girl's first sexual encounter hurts, her grandmother replies, "It's agony." Her mother's description: "It feels wonderful." No wonder the girl is confused.

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.

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