Monday, July 29, 2019

How I Learned To Drive—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland



                       Growing Pains
    This compelling and timely drama by Paula Vogel (Profile Theatre is doing their next season’s shows by this author) and is directed & produced by Dorinda Toner.  It is playing at their space, 7515 N. Brandon Ave. (just off Lombard, upstairs, free parking lot East of the building) through August 11th.  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org

    When I was in school, mid-50’s to mid-60’s, it was pretty dull on the social front.  Plus, I went nine years of that time to a Catholic school, so even more predictable, and lived a pretty normal, middle-class life…in other words, nothing really earth-shattering happened in my world.  No social media or cell phones, pretty much dullsville in comparison to today’s Youth.  But one thing that was never broached around family and friends was Sex and how to deal with those mounting feelings of desire.  We, quite simply, were in a dark hole in that regard, with no mentors to guide us.

    But, according to Vogel, rural Maryland during that time period, was a whole different story, at least for these characters.  The whole family seemed to be obsessed with Sex, in one way or another, even to the older generation.  So, a young girl, just blooming into her teens was hearing a lot of stories, but no real guidance of how to handle herself in that regard.  Li’l Bit (Adria Malcolm) seemed to have the cards stacked against her from the beginning.  And when her Uncle Peck (Michael J. Teufel) takes a “special” interest in the budding young life, then the whole world is going to change around her.

    It all begins with secret conversations, slightly naughty, cheesecake photos, touching and feeling and, driving lessons.  Peck has been “damaged” somehow in the War so, like our returning Warriors of today, brings these problems into civilian life, and even drinking does little to quell the pain.  And Li’l Bit is in the unenviable position of being a buffer between his tortured world and her emerging one.  The results are not pretty and her family and friends, played by a Chorus (Noelle Guest, Kaylee Hawkins, Chris Murphy, Sarah Nolte Fuller and Mark Turvin) do little to help.  The results you’ll just have to see for yourselves, but this is very adult material, so be warned.

    Vogel has given us a compelling and intricate story on a very delicate subject.  Her characters are neither black nor white, but inhabit that gray area that engulfs us all.  But neither does she skirt around the matter, either, giving us a realistic look at the growing pains of a young, caring girl and the family in which she is saddled with.  Mentors are needed in such conditions and they are there, reaching out…all one needs to do is take their hand.  (An excellent film from last year, Eighth Grade, gives a realistic view of Youth of today.)

    Toner has done a fine job of casting and delicately nudging her cast in the right direction.  The Chorus is very powerful, a band of neighbors you hope never to meet.  Teufel, as the uncle, rides that thin line between being manipulative and genuine caring.  Very good performance.  And Malcolm, as Li’l Bit, is stunning!  She is totally convincing as this young girl/woman, from 11 to 45, and your heart both breaks for her and yet cheers for her.  She is an amazing and accomplished actor and I would love to see her again onstage.  She has some impressive credits already and I’m sure the future is bright for her to garner many more.

    I highly recommend this play for the discerning audience.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.
--DJS
The following is a review by a budding theatre reviewer I’m mentoring,
Martha Harris:

             The girl trudges through the trenches of adolescence, feeling invisible and hyper-visible to the rest of the world. A guy finally notices her, cares for her, sees all of her complexities, and is the first to tell her “I love you.”
             A classic story we’ve seen over again in its many variations, meant to warm your heart with the sweet innocence of young romance. But when that scene plays out in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive”, the more common reaction is disgust. After all, what we’re watching doesn’t take place in the halls of high school, but between a middle-aged man and his 13-year-old niece.
            In “How I learned to Drive”, now middle-aged Li’l Bit (Adria Malcolm) takes us through a non-chronological series of memories, that occurred during the 1960s in rural Maryland, surrounding her driving lessons with her Uncle Peck (Michael J. Teufel). Uncle Peck wants to teach Li’l Bit lessons about life, driving, men, and entertains all of her naive musings on the world. But he’s also teaching her from the age of 11 about sex through flirtatious comments, giving her alcohol while she’s underage, private provocative photo sessions in his basement, fondling of her body, and counting down the days until her 18th birthday.
            In addition to their relationship, Li’l Bit also invites us into the conversations her family and classmates had growing up about sex and the nature of men and women. A Greek chorus of three performers (Kaylee Hawkins, Noelle Guest, and Chris Murphy), portray those remaining characters, helping us to see this culture of guilt, secrecy, and seeing men as children and sex as a duty, that formed Li’l Bit’s viewpoint and excused Uncle Peck’s behavior.
            The chorus members often add comedy to this disturbing and serious situation, making it harder for the audience to form black and white judgements on the situation. Vogel has no clear villain or heroine. She is not writing to cast blame, but telling a story where the audience has to exercise empathy and ask questions instead of receiving answers. For such a complex situation, Vogel shows us that we have to think a little harder.
            And this particular production by Twilight Theater Company, directed by Dorinda Toner, is as relevant today as it was over twenty years ago when it first premiered.
The nearly bare stage and basic lighting, allowed the focus to remain on the characters and their stories. Keeping only the essentials one might remember from a twenty-year-old memory.
Malcolm as Li’l Bit does a fantastic job maintaining that distinction between memory and reality, clearly switching between the hyper-vulnerability of her youth and raw edge she’s acquired as an adult retelling the story. She commits fully to the flirtatiousness, unaware of what she’s doing, but you slowly see her add layers of defense in her older years. Malcolm adds excitement and wonder to these first experiences, which the audience can’t help but understand and share in her joy of, while also wanting to reach out and stop her. Outside of Li’l Bit, the slow pacing of the show was an interesting juxtaposition to that excitement and the intensity of the content, but at times veered on the side of sleepy. 
This harrowing memory play, “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel, can be seen at Twilight Theater Company now until August 11th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.twilighttheatercompany.org

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