How I Learned to Drive won writer Paula Vogel the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988. If you want to learn about American theatre, the list of Pulitzer winners is a fine place to start. This is a beautifully written work about a harrowing subject that finds a sympathy and forgiveness that’s as uncomfortable as its subject.
Director Chris Baldock’s new independent company Mockingbird Theatre are continuing to bring famous contemporary scripts to audiences who already love the works and introducing some incredible writers to new audiences. Last year we saw The Laramie Project and can look forward to Equus and Kiss of the Spiderwoman later this year.
One of my regular theatre cohorts at the opening of How I Learned to Drive started a convesation about whether shows should have trigger warnings. It’s an argument that can’t be answered easily and perhaps the poster shouldn’t be running with “wildly funny” as its lead. I’m not a fan of the trigger warning trend; I think they encourage more people to read/watch something because it’s juicy than save people from content they would rather miss. If you don’t know, this play’s about the sexual abuse of a child by her uncle.
Set in the 60s and 70s, L’il Bit (Sarah Reuben, who was also in The Laramie Project) remembers her relationship with Uncle Peck (Jason Cavanagh). It would be comfortable to see her as all innocence and him as all evil, but what makes this work so disturbing is its gut-wrenching honest exploration of a man who believes he’s in love with a child and a child who believes she’s helping her uncle. As we ask what her life would have been like without Uncle Peck, the moral lines are blurred and re-established and for all its uncomfortable honesty, it’s its forgiveness that stays with you.
Cavanagh’s Uncle Peck is the character you can’t take your attention away from. It would be easy to play him as a pervy creep. It would also be easier to watch. But Uncle Peck is a likable, ordinary man. We know his behaviour is despicable, but Cavanagh lets us into Peck’s mind and the most disturbing part of this work is feeling sympathy for a man who we think deserves no sympathy. After his performance in The Joy of Text at La Mama earlier in the year (heaps better that the MTC version) and his ongoing work in making The Owl and the Pussycat a new favourite indie venue, 2013 is looking to be a terrific year for him.
Reuben’s L’il Bit is emotionally spot on in her relationship with Peck – he is the only person who treats her as an adult worth listening to, but it’s only as an adult that she begins to understand the relationship – but her performance felt too memorised and I could see a bit of the adult actor stopping L’il But from feeling in control. The power of this work is in letting go of our understanding of the situation and in letting all of the characters feel in control, and I suspect that with a few shows over that Reuben’s performance is now soaring.
Andrea McCannon, Juliet Hindmarsh and Sebastian Bertoli play the rest of the family and society who turn a blind eye (McCannon as Peck’s wife and Li’l Bit’s mum is especially good). They are a kind of chorus, but their strength comes from their not seeing what the audience sees; through them we see how easy it is to miss or avoid seeing the obvious.
I’ve seen How I Learned to Drive before and I’ll see it again. It’s a stunning work that’s uncomfortable and uncomfortably liberating to watch and Baldock’s production is one that’ll stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.
This production is supporting Child Wise, Australia’s leading international child protection charity committed to the prevention and reduction of sexual abuse and exploitation of children around the world.