Behind the Wheel

“How I Learned to Drive” explores the depths of one woman’s trauma from an inappropriate relationship.

In Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama “How I Learned to Drive,” a young woman known only by her nickname, Lil Bit, tells the story of her teenage relationship with the much older man who taught her how to drive in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The Conciliation Lab’s production, currently running at The Basement, is at turns dark, funny, heavy and moving, a cathartic theatrical experience that explores the depths of one woman’s trauma.

It might seem odd to describe a play with such serious subject matter as hilarious, but Lil Bit’s ability to find humor in her darkest memories is a coping mechanism integral to her survival. She uses her sense of humor to draw you in, and it’s always when the audience is mid-laughter that Lil Bit slips in some dark detail. The mood shifts, the joke sours, and the story moves along at the pace of her thoughts, sometimes racing, sometimes drifting.

Director Chelsea Burke’s attention to detail and subtext is one of the great strengths of this production. Each tonal shift feels like a swift punch to the gut, and the staging is dynamic throughout. The entire cast shines in each scene.

As Lil Bit, Juliana Caycedo is brilliant in this production. Embodying her character’s fading innocence as young as 11 years old, through her teenage years and into her young adulthood, Caycedo slips through time and space in these memories with as little as a shift in her expression, her stance. Her performance struck a rare balance, incorporating just enough humor to convey her character’s psychology, her defenses, without veering into the realm of tragicomedy or black humor. Caycedo’s portrayal of a young woman’s response to abuse is realistic and deeply moving.

Jeffrey Cole is also excellent in this production, tasked with the difficult role of Peck, the older man who groomed Lil Bit into their inappropriate relationship. Cole portrays Peck as gentle, kind, almost sympathetic in those moments where Lil Bit seems to feel for him, then swiftly shifting to suspicious, pathetic, and broken as the memories compile.

At first, these two actor’s ages seem out of sync, as they’re clearly pretty close in age. But as the play progresses and it becomes clearer that all of this exists in Lil Bit’s adult mind, as she looks back on her abuser when he wasn’t much older than she is at the point of telling, the casting makes more sense and works perfectly. The disorientation early on in the play is an important part of Lil Bit’s emotional landscape as she begins to tell her story.

The interactions between Peck and Lil Bit were sometimes difficult to watch, especially during the intimate moments, but again, the discomfort is an important part of this story. Intimacy director Stephanie “Tippi” Hart did an amazing job, working with Burke to ensure that these moments carried weight and movement, aligning with Lil Bit’s thoughts spiraling closer to a specific, clear memory of the abuse. In the first intimate scene, the characters are completely separate, disconnected, experiencing the moment without reproducing it onstage. With each intimate scene, the actors move closer to actually re-enacting the abuse in a realistic, non-stylistic way. I thought that movement was really effective and led to a true moment of catharsis.

The actors comprising the Greek Chorus, Bianca Bryan, Maggie Bavolak and Mahlon Raoufi, stand out just as much as the two leads. These three also get to demonstrate their range, slipping in and out of a wide variety of personas, populating Lil Bit’s memories with an entire world full of observers, family members, friends, acquaintances and bystanders. Bianca Bryan’s monologues as both Lil Bit’s mother and Peck’s wife were some of the emotional highlights of the show, and Maggie Bavolak brought an extra dose of humor and a brief musical interlude to the production. While I’ve enjoyed seeing most of these actors on the Richmond stage in the past, this was my first opportunity to see Raoufi perform, and I was wowed by his versatility. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see a lot more of him in the future.

Alyssa Sutherland’s scenic design for this production is arresting, painted all black with asymmetrical levels and a sloping road whose painted lines wind out into expressionistic spirals, establishing the surreal situation of the play right away. Dasia Gregg’s projection design and Deryn Gabor’s lighting design work in tandem with the set to heighten the sense of drama and dreaminess, adding so much to each scene. I loved the choice to juxtapose images of pin-up girls with the scene in which Peck photographs 13-year-old Lil Bit, underscoring the troubling power dynamic at play. Maggie McGrann’s costumes are versatile workhorses, making smart use of small elements–a robe here, a pair of glasses there–to assist the actors’ transitions between character, place and time. Candace Hudert’s sound design is excellent, as well. Every technical element is in sync in this production.

This play isn’t for everyone, and it should come with a trigger warning: those who would like to avoid media containing depictions of this type of abuse and its long-lasting impacts might want to sit this one out. But if you’re looking for a truly cathartic emotional experience, one that makes clear the reasons why this kind of May-September relationship is always an unequal one, “How I Learned to Drive” will not disappoint. It’s definitely one of the best shows I’ve seen so far this year.

The Conciliation Lab’s “How I Learned to Drive” runs through March 26th at The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets cost $15-$35.

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