By: Paula Vogel
At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets:raventheatre.com; $41-$46. Runs through: March 24
Despite the script's Pulitzer-elevated status to canon classic, Raven Theatre's production of How I Learned to Drive seems as of the moment now as when it first premiered off-Broadway in 1997. Paula Vogel's memory play about abuse and forgiveness is sharply realized in a spare and focused production that allows the actors to confront ugly realities with intensity, heart, and even humor.
At the start of director Cody Estle's production, Li'l Bit ( Eliza Stoughton ) tells the audience that, in order to reveal a secret, sometimes one has to teach a lesson. As she narrates her way through her isolated adolescence in backwater Maryland, using driving lesson titles as a framing device, we have no reason not to trust her. We have several reasons not to trust her Uncle Peck ( Mark Ulrich ), a man who expertly preys on his niece by marriage while slowly revealing the depths of his own despair. Everyone who could help Li'l Bit blames herfrom classmates to relatives played with insight by Kathryn Acosta, Julian Hester and Katherine Bourne Taylor.
Estle understands how memory can both heighten and dull important moments. He clears the stage of clutter and flash, focusing on the actors' relationships with one another. Li'l Bit has hilarious conversations with her mother and grandmother that curdle from awkward sex talk into bitter familial recrimination. The montage we see of Li'l Bit's school days hold all the gawkiness of teenage life, with a current of danger underneath every interaction she has with the opposite sex. And her victimization at the hands of Peck builds excruciatingly slowly, to convince the audience that she is in control the entire time. Stoughton and Ulrich are mesmerizing, as they navigate the changing rules of their interactions across almost a decade. Stoughton, in particular, does fine work aging up and down, from the innocent and lonely young pre-teen to the jaded narrator who looks back at herself as both damaged and lucky.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set is a lonely road and a beat-up billboard anyone might pass on the highway. Tony Churchill's scene-setting projections are not always a necessary element, but gain heat when they flash advertisements that demonstrate how pervasive women are sexualized and split into parts for consumption in society. Vogel's script highlights a continuing epidemic in our country, and this Raven production underlines how much resilience women display in the face of attacks and accusation.