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Backseat Driver

An adult man and a teenage girl share the stage. He is teaching her how to drive and she is listening attentively. Their exchange seems to become flirtatious, but that just does not seem right since he is so much older. After more dialogue, the situation becomes clear: the 40-something man and the 17-year-old girl have a romantic interest in each other. And he is her uncle.

Paula Vogel’s play, “How I Learned to Drive” tracks Li’l Bit (Sally Koering) and her relationship with Uncle Peck, played by Andy Zimney. The play follows Li’l Bit in a reverse chronology from age 17 to 11, as the nature of this disturbed relationship reveals its source. Most of the scenes take place in Uncle Peck’s car, as he begins teaching Li’l Bit how to drive when she is 11.

The reverse-age order in which the scenes are presented can make the audience fall into a mindset similar to someone who is sexually abused by a trusted relative: first denial, then confusion. When the undertones of sexual desire first appear, it seems safer to go against instincts and ignore long stares and flirtatious glances between a 17-year-old girl and a man with gray hair on his temples, who is not yet revealed as her uncle. But it is soon blatantly apparent how twisted this relationship is. After his identity is revealed, he promises not to “do anything” with Li’l Bit until she is ready.

A young looking Andy Zimney portrays Uncle Peck as an attentive uncle who draws his face into a serious expression when teaching Li’l Bit the rules of the road. He also says he has loved Li’l Bit since the day he held her newborn body in his hand.

Yet Peck talks Li’l Bit into posing for photographs to be submitted to Playboy when she is 13. The sparse set forces the actors to create a sense of space with their bodies. Li’l Bit’s crunched shoulders show the smallness of a corner of her uncle’s basement where he photographs her. Her eagerness to trust Uncle Peck as the father figure she has always wanted comes through with the slow, guarded way she removes her clothing with the encouragement of his soft voice. It’s wrong, and they both know it, but the spell they have cast on each other has long set in.

And the spell is perpetuated by her family and friends. “It takes a whole village to molest a child.” That is what went through Paula Vogel’s mind as she wrote “How I Learned to Drive,” according to an interview she gave to Arthur Holmberg. Li’l Bit’s friends and family believe she has power over her sexuality when exactly the opposite is true.

In school, Li’l Bit is forced to see herself as sexualized at age 14, when other children constantly give her attention for the size of her breasts. In one comical scene, a dopey boy (Alex Evanson) shuffles up to her and asks her prematurely large breasts if Li’l Bit would like to dance. She says no, and turns to her mammary-envying friends with some self-deprecating words on the misfortune of having breasts.

Similarly, her family lets her know that because she is a woman, she will only be valued for her body. Her mother (a bawdy, gaudy and giggly Sara Helen Cantleberry) instructs Li’l Bit, in a drunken monologue, what drink to order when with a man. She also tells Li’l Bit that she doesn’t like the way Uncle Peck looks at her, and that it will be Li’l Bit’s fault if he does something to her.

Uncle Peck’s wife, Mary, wistfully tells the audience how her husband needs her and how she cannot wait for Li’l Bit to go to college. Clearly, to the adults in Li’l Bit’s world, her unconstrained sexuality is all her fault. To them, nobody is responsible for Uncle Peck’s sexual advances but Li’l Bit.

When Li’l Bit is 18, she is prematurely tired, pacing and utterly confused as she tells a love-infested, engagement ring-offering Uncle Peck what she must do, while bouncing between two sides of herself: one side steeped in pain and dying to get out of his world, the other still entrenched in the spell of his enveloping kindness and attention.

“How I Learned to Drive” plays through Nov. 23 at Bryant Lake Bowl, (612) 825-8949.

Monica LaBelle welcomes comments at [email protected]

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