by Kirby LindsayFor the last play of their season (the last production of this season will be the Double XX Play Fest in April) Stone Soup Theatre has produced an award-winning play so well-suited to the small theater, and its limited resources, that it could potentially spoil first-time visitors.
From February 4 – 27, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, and at two Sunday matinees, audiences can see How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel. The 1998 play won the Pulitzer, Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards, and this production, ably directed by John Vreeke, showcases the many reasons this work earned acclaim.
A ‘Mother’s Guide’
While performed on the larger of Stone Soup’s two stages, the Downstage, this still provides little distance between audience members and the action. In Fool For Love – the relentlessly emotional Sam Shepherd play, produced last season at Stone Soup – the close quarters gave audience members no escape from an emotionally powerful performance. The same holds true here, where Vreeke deliberately removed even the few perceptual boundaries usually in use at Stone Soup.
Entering the theater means walking onto the stage, and the actors – once introduced - never leave the stage, even as they occasionally try. Yet, as a member of the audience during a preview performance, I never felt trapped, as in the Shepherd play. For Vogel has carefully balanced a harsh, intimate subject matter with humor, and humanity. This production feels less a slap in the face than a steady tap on the temple.
Quality performances by the entire cast – Kelli Mohrbacher, Jaryl Draper, Maureen Miko, Zachariah Robinson, and Jager Weatherby – realize an ultimately tragic story. The use of abstract images, and the abundant driving metaphors that provide transitions between scenes that take place over thirty years, can be vaguely distracting. The opening, with an abrupt delivery by Mohrbacher, made it initially hard to enter the story. Abstract blocking used during an immediate, and intimate, scene between the principle characters also made it hard to warm up to the story, at first.
That doesn’t last. As one audience member observed during the after-show ‘talk back,’ “the play got deeper, and deeper, and deeper.” Instances like Miko, founder of Stone Soup, who skillfully draws laughs with her delivery of, ‘A Mother’s Guide To Social Drinking,’ make the play accessible. “Stay away from ‘Ladies Drinks,’” she advises, in a dulcet, cultured voice at complete odds with the characters and situations we’ve so far encountered. The bit of much-needed comic relief also underlines the hypocrisy and delicate societal shadowplay that create this play’s horrible story.
An Uncle’s Charm
For this is a story about incest; about an inappropriate relationship. And it is the simple, charming and deeply disturbing role of Uncle Peck, as portrayed by Draper, that captured the preview audience. Draper gives an outstanding performance of an incredibly complex character – a credit to his talent as well as that of the playwright and director.
Rather than a simple, cardboard villain that allows audiences to feel justifiable righteous indignation, this production provides nimble navigation of the thin line between charm and manipulation; between self-deception and awareness of wrong. As Draper has boldly admitted about his role, “I don’t feel he’s wrong.” This disturbing, distasteful, and dysfunctional relationship is honestly portrayed, as a tragedy for all involved.
To experience this unique, layered work, step inside How I Learned To Drive at Stone Soup by February 27th. Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets, the Stone Soup box office, and sometimes just before a performance. Go enjoy this excellent showcase of a deservedly award-winning play – and decide for yourself!
©2011 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.