Joy Ride

Ring Theatre teaches a bit about handling a stick

Few things are more difficult to describe than childhood molestation.

But Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning controversial play, How I Learned to Drive, now onstage at the University of Miami's Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, does just that.

Set in Maryland largely during the Sixties, this 90-minute dark comedy moves in flashbacks and flashforwards through the life of a local girl named L'il Bit — played by the fiercely talented Lindsay Ryan — from age eleven to fortysomething. The young woman chillingly narrates the years of sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her much older uncle, Peck (Alex Kaplan), as he taught her to drive.

But the duo is as unstereotypical as the protagonists of Nabokov's Lolita, the tale the playwright credits as her inspiration. And what elevates Vogel's script above countless others is its refusal to reduce the central characters to helpless victims or evil villains.

Instead Vogel cunningly parallels the trauma associated with L'il Bit's coming of age with the often unexpected dangers of operating an automobile. She expertly weaves harrowing and traumatic scenes of pedophilia with genuinely comical, lighthearted interludes.

Ultimately L'il Bit struggles to take control of her own body, a notion cleverly driven home by the final section of this rite-of-passage story.

Supporting the central character's memories of home, school, and car are six players whom Vogel identifies as male chorus, female chorus, and teenage chorus. The troupe peppers the production with harmonious a cappella numbers, which provide a subtle soundtrack to this hauntingly humorous tale.

The impact of How I Learned to Drive on audience emotion is thunderous and makes this a tale likely to remain with spectators well after the curtain falls.

 
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