The Illyrian Players Present... HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE Written by Paula Vogel Directed by Carly D. Weckstein March 21 - April 13, 2014
"...the production, together with Weckstein’s impressive revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year, is quickly establishing Illyrian Players as one of L.A.’s top interpreters of contemporary classics." —Bill Raden, Stage Raw's Top Ten
Photo by Elizabeth McCoy
One woman's story of the road to forgiveness and freedom from secrets, self-hatred and addiction. Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize wining play tackles brutal subject matter with grace, humor and humanity. Weaving a gorgeous patchwork of memories, Vogel reveals a provocative narrative about the gifts from people who have hurt us. "Daniels offers an indelible portrayal of a victim and predator as Li’l Bit navigates her seven-year journey through pedophilia... Her inherent physical sensuality is neither emphasized or avoided. It is simply there." - Julio Martinez, Arts in LA "Weckstein’s staging is firmly founded on the remarkable talents of Shafer, whose knife-edged portrayal of Peck strikes a profoundly unsettling balance between sympathetic compassion and the hint of something “off” just beneath the surface" - Bill Raden, Stage Raw "...the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic...it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout... How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play. It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity. And the Illyrian Players, under [Weckstein's] direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves. - Mark Hein, Theatre Ghost
"Vogel definitely wrote the play to challenge our own assumptions about sexual consent, abuse, addiction, etc., but it is also Carly D. Weckstein’s direction that steers us into a much grayer realm than the black and white or good and evil world you might assume things like molestation or pedophilia to lie. In other words, Carly, and her talented cast, made everyone so human." - Nina Harada, The Chamberpot
Photo by Elizabeth McCoy
The Illyrian Players, LA's sex-positive theatre company, is the perfect group of artists to confidently tackle the complex themes around gender roles and human sexuality that are featured in this play. The dark taboos within this story -- ambiguous consent, sexual abuse, pedophilia, incest -- have not faded over time, but are more relevant than ever. This is not just one woman's story -- it is the story of a whole culture, a story of families, and a story about the way we are taught to look at men, sex and women. In the spirit of Vogel's own powerful voice, our incendiary ensemble is approaching this text with deep compassion, a twisted sense of humor, and a focus on the empowerment of survival.
Directed by Carly D. Weckstein Stage Managed by Ben Shipley Assistant Directed by Joanna Bateman
STARRING: Elitia Daniels.........................Li'l Bit Thaddeus Shafer......................................Peck Anna Walters.........................Female Greek Chorus Jonny Taylor..........................Male Greek Chorus Cassandra Gonzales..............Teenage Greek Chorus
Costume Design --- Janet Leon Scenic Design --- William Herder Lighting Design --- Colleen Dunleap Props Mistress --- Kaitlin Huwe Sound Design --- Carly D. Weckstein
Featured in Arts in LA "Daniels offers an indelible portrayal of a victim and predator as Li’l Bit navigates her seven-year journey through pedophilia,...Her inherent physical sensuality is neither emphasized or avoided. It is simply there. Shafer’s impeccably realized Uncle Peck harkens to the Tennessee Williams’s genre of faded Southern aristocracy, infusing all the failures and disappointments of his life into justification for this tangible realization of the corruption of his soul." --Julio Martinez
Hot Shit of the Month at The Chamberpot Featuring a video of audience reactions, an insightful interview with the director and another glowing review http://thechamberpot.org/?p=160
Production Stills by Emilio Ortega Aldrich
FULL REVIEWS: Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer winning sojourn within the complicated relationship of a young girl and her middle-aged sexual molester is given an impressively nuanced outing by Illyrian Players, helmed by Carly D. Weckstein. Set in 1960s rural Maryland, Vogel’s text follows a dramatically enticing scrambled chronology as 32-year-old Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) recalls her ragingly dysfunctional working-class family history, highlighted by her seven-year secret friendship with her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shafer), beginning when she was 11, when soft-spoken and genteel Peck gives L’il Bit her first driving lesson.
The playwright doesn’t provide vulnerable but perceptive Li’l Bit many options, establishing the utter vulgarity of her family—performed with clownish lustiness by the Greek chorus trio of Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales. The girl is also challenged at school, embarrassed by the adolescent ogling she endures due to her prematurely well-developed bosom. The courtly attention Peck gives her is a relief from the emotional chaos she endures away from him. As adult L’il Bit explains, once her preteen self realized what her relationship with Peck would continue to be, her emotional awareness “retreated above the neck.”
Each scene is prefaced by a spoken chapter title from a driving manual, further emphasizing the importance of these episodes in this girl’s crooked path to womanhood. Performed with no intermission, played out on Will Herder’s simple, easy-access, all-purpose set, Weckstein’s staging—complemented by Colleen Dunleap’s lights—places a profound emphasis on the evolving relationship of two flawed human beings who choose to not do the right thing, especially increasingly manipulative Li’l Bit, who is usually placed front and center, fully lit, emphasizing her command of the proceedings. Peck has to literally approach her from a darker area of the stage.
Daniels offers an indelible portrayal of a victim and predator as Li’l Bit navigates her seven-year journey through pedophilia, purposefully insinuating herself into her uncle’s warped psyche as he cravenly assaults hers. Her inherent physical sensuality is neither emphasized or avoided. It is simply there. Shafer’s impeccably realized Uncle Peck harkens to the Tennessee Williams’s genre of faded Southern aristocracy, infusing all the failures and disappointments of his life into justification for this tangible realization of the corruption of his soul. His skills at persuasion and enticement are as effective as they are creepy. Weckstein relegates the supporting roles to the status of caricatures, especially the over-the-top redneck shenanigans of Li’l Bit’s grandparents (Taylor and Gonzales). Walters offers an effectively bitter monologue as Peck’s long-suffering but ultimately complicit wife. Gonzales is haunting as the terrified inner voice of 11-year-old Li’l Bit, suffering her first unnatural attention from her uncle.
- Julio Martinez, Arts in LA
A lot of sensational sex scandals have passed under the bridge in the 17 years since How I Learned to Drive first shocked audiences with its nuanced and almost sympathetically inverted portrayal of child sexual molestation. Which is to say that in a world where news of yet another disgraced pedophile priest is barely worthy of a raised eyebrow, the seat-squirming factor in Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner isn’t what it once was.
Happily, director Carly Weckstein’s accomplished studio revival of the play (abetted by William Herder’s nicely emblematic scenic design) does come as a potent reminder of just what delectable and powerfully drawn roles the script offers for a committed ensemble.
The play, which charts the seven-year incestuous relationship between the middle-aged uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shafer) and his vulnerable but not-so-unwilling, adolescent-through-teenaged niece Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) in rural Maryland during the 1960s, gains its power from Vogel’s use of reverse chronology in order to first establish Peck’s disarming Southern charm and genuine sympathy and affection for the object of his less-than-avuncular doting.
As the narrative moves backwards in time and the true implications of the play’s titular “driving lessons” become ever more explicit, Li’l Bit is revealed as increasingly and more openly complicit. Vogel’s coup is to upend audience assumptions about who, exactly, was in the driver’s seat all along. All relationships the play declares — even of the victimizer-victim kind — are composed of endlessly tangling and all-too-human shades of gray.
To that end, Weckstein’s staging is firmly founded on the remarkable talents of Shafer, whose knife-edged portrayal of Peck strikes a profoundly unsettling balance between sympathetic compassion and the hint of something “off” just beneath the surface. The fine Anna Walters stands out in multiple roles, particularly in her persuasive turn as Peck’s sinisterly enabling wife. Backed by capable support from Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales, who with Walters comprise the Greek Chorus, the production, together with Weckstein’s impressive revival of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year, is quickly establishing Illyrian Players as one of L.A.’s top interpreters of contemporary classics.
- Bill Raden, Stage Raw
I admit I am pretty sensitive when it comes to things like sexual abuse and so I was a little nervous walking in to “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel, produced by The Illyrian Players. Is this going to be uncomfortable? Am I actually going to enjoy watching this play? Is this just going to make me feel shitty, or will I get anything new out of this experience? The answer is, yes.
I did not know about Paula Vogel’s work except for the taboo topics “How I Learned to Drive” covers: pedophilia, incest and sexual molestation. And though I’d like to think of myself as an open person, I couldn’t help but walk into Theatre Asylum with a certain assumption about the two characters that center this play. As I journeyed through Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck’s world, my judgments were quickly flipped on their head. And that’s the point. Vogel definitely wrote the play to challenge our own assumptions about sexual consent, abuse, addiction, etc., but it is also Carly D. Weckstein’s direction that steers us into a much grayer realm than the black and white or good and evil world you might assume things like molestation or pedophilia to lie. In other words, Carly, and her talented cast, made everyone so human. Of course I felt for Lil Bit (played with a beautiful combination of strength and vulnerability by Elitia Daniels) but what surprised me is how I cared for and felt pain for Uncle Peck (played with such sincerity and heart by Thaddeus Shafer—also, side note, he does some pretty amazing space work!). The play teaches us that molestation or pedophilia do not occur in a vacuum. As LiL Bit so bravely asks towards the end of the play, “Who did it you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?” I don’t mean to imply that we should forgive him. I don’t mean to imply anything we should or shouldn’t do or feel—that is up to you as you watch this play.
The play doesn’t just show the relationship between Uncle Peck and Lil’ Bit, but also their relationships to the rest of the family, which are played by the Greek Chorus. Female Greek Chorus member Anna Walters, who plays both Lil Bit’s mom and aunt, gives a stand out comedic performance. A particular highlight is her monologue about how a lady should drink and what to do if she drinks too much. I learned something. Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales round out the cast as the rest of the Greek Chorus and showed their range as physical actors as they played teenagers and grandparents.
Since the play is made up of Lil Bit’s monologues, which take place in the present, and her memories, we move in and out of time and place quickly and non-linearly. The lights, set and sound all aid in guiding us as to when and where we are. Colleen Dunleap’s lighting design helps with mood and steer us from monologue to scene, but I felt like there were times when I lost Daniels’ face to a dark corner of the stage. The simple set, designed by William Herder, is mostly movable tables and chairs. But the most distinct set piece is the stationary backdrop. Like a dilapidated ad from the 1950s, a smiling woman’s face looks out at us but only with one eye as the other is damaged by the peeling paint. The image is literally broken, just like the characters in Vogel’s play. The different car sound effects of course go along with the theme, but it’s the constant soundtrack of 1950’s music that really sets the perfect background for this story. The 50s were seemingly perfect, a time of prosperity and conformity and the family unit, but of course that is just on the surface. Janet Leon’s costume design goes along with this 1950s theme (although the play takes place in the 60s) and uses bright colors and cardigans. I only wish that there was a greater contrast in costume between the different characters some of the Greek Chorus members played, especially for Anna Walters who plays both Lil’ Bit’s mom and aunt. But now I’m just being picky.
Bottom line is plays like Drive are important. This shit happens, is happening, not just in 1960s Maryland, but here and now. I can’t wait for a world where it doesn’t, but until then we have a lot of healing to do. Let “How I Learned to Drive” be a part of that process. I feel pretty comfortable saying that.
- Nina Harada, The Chamberpot
This unassuming play premiered in1997, winning a Pulitzer and shelf of theatre awards, and has become a familiar feature of our theatre landscape.
Now the Illyrian Players, on the Theatre Asylum stage, are giving full, chilling life to this modern classic. It’s the story of a girl, Li’l Bit (Elitia Daniels) who learns driving — and drinking — and sexuality — from her alcoholic uncle Peck (Thaddeus Shaffer). It’s simply told: two chairs on a bare stage, at times two more and a table, in one scene a bed. Only the two main characters are drawn full; the others are sketched by three supporting actors (Anna Walters, Jonny Taylor, and Cassandra Gonzales).
With these bits of yarn, Paula Vogel (now Yale’s playwriting prof) weaves a mesmerizing tale. In fact — as Ben Brantley noted in his NY Times review of the 2012 Broadway revival — she also slips in “Brechtian scene titles … self-conscious use of illusion, strategically scrambled chronology [and] cartoonish comic exaggeration.”
But it feels familiar, swift and stark, just like a classical tragedy. Indeed it is a tragedy, one to stand alongside Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey. Or Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. In clear language and images we cannot fail to recognize, How I Learned… reveals the web of half-conscious complicity that surrounds us all, as we struggle to survive our culture’s “design for living.”
By the time this tale is told, we have felt the desperate attempt of each character — even Li’l Bit’s comic-strip grandparents — to make sense of the unspoken rules, to find a way to be a man or a woman. We’ve felt their need to anesthetize the loneliness and pain, to ignore the horrors we endure and, in turn, inflict.
All are ensnared in the gender trap. No one gets free. Not even those of us who applaud and leave the theatre. That’s what makes it tragic.
Vogel knows what she’s doing (we never hear the family’s last name; the three backup players are listed as “Greek Chorus”), and her achievement is remarkable. She deserves the awards.
Equally worthy of praise is the direction of Carly D. Weckstein (who led Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last year), and the work of the cast and crew. By daring to stay close to the harrowing ride mapped out in Vogel’s script, they lead us on a painful but necessary journey.
Touches of faithful genius fill this production. The pre-show shocks us with recognition as we hum along to the pedophilic “love songs” of the era (“You’re 16, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine”; “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind”), suggested by Vogel and selected by Weckstein. William Herder’s set wears the face of a ’50s model female emerging on a peeled billboard, torn scraps leaving her with only one eye. An electronic projection writhes anxiously upon it before the play starts … at the climax, its white garden-lattice base falls open to become a hotel bed.
In one scene, Uncle Peck “grooms” a young nephew by teaching him to fish. All the while, Li’l Bit lies under a blanket nearby where (in the previous scene) she’d fallen asleep, drunk, in Peck’s car. In another scene, as Li’l Bit recounts his relapse and swift alcoholic decline, Peck downs several shots then steps to the edge of the stage, poised as if to take flight; seconds later, she tells us he died by falling down the cellar stairs. Many such moments grace the performance.
But it’s the artists Weckstein has chosen who shape its core, sustaining it throughout. Elitia Daniels displays impressive range, bringing all of Li’l Bit to life, especially eloquent at embodying her often unspoken conflict and discomfort. Though the play is decidedly non-linear, she clearly shows us her character’s evolution from a child seeking acceptance and love, through confusion and anger, to a young woman struggling for a sense of control in her life. She reveals flashes of wit and wile that brighten and darken her character. And Daniels’ own zaftig beauty (quietly overplayed by Janet Leon’s costume design) makes Li’l Bit’s pre-teen precocity and anguish fully credible.
Thaddeus Shaffer is another felicitous choice. Laying aside easy choices (leering lout, Southern gentleman), he delicately crafts a man who has barely survived, long before the scarring war he can’t discuss. Peck almost visibly trembles with the effort to live within his skin. We know what he will do, yet we feel his desperation for the empathy his niece gives — and for the devil’s bargain she offers, intimacy in return for his going on the wagon. Shaffer always shows us, subtly, that Peck’s genuine love and his specious assurances deceive him as well as Li’l Bit.
By the end, he has taken us far from easy judgment and socially approved hatred to a much different, more painful place. The Greek Chorus trio handles widely varied, often very brief roles. They carve them clearly, and keep them distinct. And they move easily among the many styles the script demands. Anna Walters, as Li’l Bit’s mother, slides from satiric realism to Lucille Ball buffoonery in her multi-stage monologue on how a lady drinks. Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales shift smoothly from teens to a pair of sex-obsessed sexagenerians straight out of commedia dell’arte. Taylor also adroitly twists and curves his tall frame into a short middle-school geek’s sad self-image.
How I Learned to Drive is, as Weckstein has said, an important play. It needs to be performed often, as our culture begins the long ascent from patriarchy toward humanity. And the Illyrian Players, under her direction, are performing it with the artistry, power and immediacy it deserves.