Recently I had the opportunity to see Tongue in Cheek Theater’s production of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, directed by Jake Lipman, at The Bridge Theater at Shetler Studios. Yes, the same Shetler Studios where we’ll be opening The Sandman’s Coming on Thursday. In fact, How I Learned to Drive will be running right next door to us for several of our performances. Now you might think that would be a bad thing – why would we want competition? Right? But really it’s just such a wonderful coincidence of timing. You see, I LOVE Tongue in Cheek Theater. After Going to Tahiti Productions, they are, hands down, my favorite indy off-off-Broadway theater company in the city. I’ve now seen 3 shows of theirs - Our Town, The Mistakes Madeline Made, and now, How I Learned to Drive – and I am continually impressed with the high caliber of work that they do. And, the idea of having them next door to us while we are doing our run? Well, that’s just all kinds of good mojo and we theater people are very big with the mojo.
But I digress – this is a review so – How I Learned to Drive. I walked into the show knowing nothing about it…no, that’s not true, I knew the play had won a Pulitzer…I knew Jake was directing it…and, uh, I knew it had something to do with driving? (I mean, that’s in the title). But, seriously, I knew very little about it. I know, I know, you’re thinking – “but Jess, you’re a theater person! Of course you know How I Learned to Drive.” Nope. I knew nothing about it and, because of my whole spoiler thing, once I realized I was going to see it, I didn’t want to know anything about it. I just wanted to see it fresh. So I went into it cold – I had no expectations (beyond my normal expectation of a TIC production: that it was going to be an evening of good theater) – and I wasn’t disappointed.
Ok, for the spoiler averse, skip this paragraph: How I Learned to Drive chronicles the formative years of precocious teen, Li’l Bit (Jake Lipman), who yearns to get out of her small town and away from her dysfunctional family. The play tells the story of a troubling relationship Li’l Bit has with an older man; and, using driving as a metaphor, it explores issues of pedophilia, incest, control and manipulation. To be honest, the subject matter makes it a bit tough to watch and yet, in the hands of Ms. Lipman and her cast it was a thought-provoking, surprising, funny and, at times, devestating, show.
The cast was superb across the board but I need to single out both Lynn Berg as Uncle Peck and Ms. Lipman herself as Li’l Bit. First a word about Lynn Berg. This is a tough role, folks – a really tough role. It would be so easy for this character to come off as really skeevy and that’s it. I mean, the character is a full grown adult, in an incredibly inappropriate, (not to mention) illegal relationship with a young girl. But there was such subtlety to Mr. Berg’s performance. It’s not that you were sympathetic to him exactly (you know, read the previous sentence), it was more that, through Mr. Berg’s performance, you see Uncle Peck as a victim as much as a predator. And, you see genuine kindness and affection from Uncle Peck. You see why Li’l Bit is conflicted in her feelings for him. AND, you see something not easily characterized as sensationalistic or flashy. It’s instead just the easy grubbiness of real life situations that are complex and painful and confusing.
Mr. Berg has a capable counterpart in Jake Lipman as Li’l Bit. Her performance as well is subtle and powerful, funny and heart-wrenching. In her hands Li’l Bit is such a real person – a study in contradictions – strong and weak, old and young, knowledgable and naive – and you believe the conflict she feels in her relationship to this older, wiser, (inappropriately) affectionate man who clearly sees her in a way the rest of her family doesn’t. It isn’t cut and dry, it isn’t titillating and sensationalistic; it’s real and ugly and painful and confusing and funny and haunting and so so sad. And, as a director myself, I am truly amazed at Ms. Lipman’s ability to guide a production at the same time she completely merges herself into it.
The supporting cast – Michael Edmund, Holland Hamilton, Shelley Little and Joan D. Saunders are equally fine. Playing multiple roles who orbit Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit, each actor has the challenge of playing “Greek Chorus” members as well as specific characters and they all step up to the task with skill and grace.
The play is beautifully directed – actually it’s the best kind of direction – not noticeable. The pace is perfect and the show flows beautifully. It was so smooth that when I first sat down and realized there was no intermission, I was concerned. How would I sit through 90 minutes of, you know, talking? (I know, I know. That’s, like, what theater is. And I love theater, so why would I be concerned by it? And yet, I’ve seen so much…so so much…bad off-off Broadway theater (Hell, I’ve seen some bad on Broadway theater) that the fear of being trapped with no intermission, is a legitamate fear – it can be interminable). But, of course, in the always deft and capable hands of Jake Lipman, I had nothing to worry about.
The simple evocative set – an oversized picnic table and two benches – seamlessly becomes the front seat of a car, a dock at a fishing hole, a hotel bedroom – at the same time it gives you a sense of nostalgia for a seemingly simpler and easier time.
In the end, How I Learned to Drive is about a woman learning the rules of life the way some of us learn the rules of the road – from friends or loved ones, slowly, frighteningly, sometimes painfully, but always, in the end, on our own.
How I Learned to Drive runs through November 2nd. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8pm. All performances are at The Bridge Theare @ Shetler Studios (literally right next door to Theatre 54 where we’ll be performance The Sandman’s Coming - just saying). For tickets and further details visit the Tongue In Cheek website and don’t miss this terrific and haunting production.