Learner's Permit

Jan 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
By Paula Vogel
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Studio Theatre

Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive is more than just another story about a man molesting a young girl -- in this case, an uncle obsessed with his niece. What makes it more lies first in Vogel's script. But it lies equally in what Seana McKenna brings out of that script in her performance as the niece in the current production in the Rep Studio. Li'l Bit, grown up and moving into middle age, narrates for us the history of her relations with her Uncle Peck. McKenna traces Li'l Bit's growing understanding both of the damage the relationship did to her and of how it was allowed to happen. The actor gives full value to the humor and understanding in the lines playwright Vogel hands this grown woman as she untangles the mingled threads of sweetness and pain in her teenage years. McKenna brings equally alive the young Li'l Bit, from the 11-year-old eager to spend more time with her sympathetic Uncle Peck to the college freshman at last coming to grips with the damage Uncle Peck has done to her and trying to free herself from his hold on her. Though it's only January, I'm ready to declare McKenna's one of the great performances of 1999.

But her performance would lose much of its complexity without the work of Tom Stechschulte as Uncle Peck. Peck is a Southern boy who has married into a Maryland family, and Stechschulte invests him with the same masculine Southern charm he brought to Atticus Finch in the Rep's production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck is the only one in Li'l Bit's crude family who supports her desire to go to college and study literature. But if she has, as he says, a fire in her brain, he has a fire in his heart. Only liquor or Li'l Bit can dampen the flames. In exchange for his promise not to drink, Li'l Bit agrees to meet him once a week for "driving lessons." He insists that he will not do anything she does not want, that he will do only what she permits him to do. Because she doesn't want to hurt the one person who seems to understand her, and because he is innately attractive, Li'l Bit succumbs to the pressure. Stechschulte makes Peck such an ambiguous figure that when Li'l Bit finally rejects him, his collapse, rendered by the actor with the most subtle strokes, breaks your heart even as you rejoice that he gets the fate he deserves.

Vogel divides the other roles in Li'l Bit's story among three actors. At the Rep, Charles Towers directs most of their scenes in broad, almost caricatured fashion. Richard Elmore, Raye Lankford and Karen Garvey usually make these scenes work, but occasionally the humor seems forced, and the comic treatment weakens the intensity of Li'l Bit's dilemma. Lankford, though, is not weak at all when she quietly, politely, with fierce understatement, cries out the anguish of Peck's wife, only inches from her breaking point.

J. Bruce Summers puts this painfully conventional woman in a pink headband with a pink sweater over her shoulders, and, as with all his costumes, these touches are just right for the character. The simple panels of Bill Clarke's set and the fluid movement of Jackie Manassee's lights create a place for Li'l Bit's memories. Above all, Vogel's script and the performances of McKenna and Stechschulte make How I Learned to Drive rich, powerful drama.

By Phelim McDermott, with Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady
Improbable Theatre at Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series

Phelim McDermott is a delightful storyteller. In fact, when 70 Hill Lane began last weekend at Washington U.'s Edison Theatre with McDermott sitting behind a table talking to us in his charming Manchester accent, I thought he might be a British Spalding Gray.

But then he began to crumple together the newspapers spread on the table. Suddenly they turned into the figure of a man, which McDermott and his two associates, Guy Dartnell and Steve Tiplady, manipulated like a puppet. Like the ancient Japanese storytellers who evolved the puppets of the Bunraku theater to act out their stories and who still recite the lines for the actors manipulated by three puppeteers, McDermott and his colleagues created visual aids for his stories as he told them. With a platform, four poles and cellophane tape, they evoked first McDermott's flat in London and then the three-story house in Manchester where he grew up and where a poltergeist flung things about when he was a lad. As Ben Park underlined the events musically, the three created McDermott's grandmother out of newspapers and the poltergeist itself out of tape. If they didn't quite evoke for me the mysterious reality of the spirit world, they did evoke the invigorating mystery and joy of artistic creation.

SHORT SEENS: The fledgling Echo Theatre Company, which mounted one production last season, now has a second piece on the boards. Again it's confident, carefully prepared work. The play, Low Level Panic, by British playwright Clara McIntyre, explores in ways both familiar and fresh how male desire shapes women's sense of self-worth. The script embodies three responses to this dilemma in its three characters. But it moves sluggishly, with little dramatic excitement among the three. More credit, then, to Amy Brixey, Danyel Read, Stefani Marion and their director, Eric J. Little, for giving the women lives worth attending to.

The Red Clay Ramblers' Jack Herrick, author of the delightful Bah! Humbug!, scores again with his revisionist take on Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with Rip Van Winkle, performed with verve by the Imaginary Theatre Company at last Saturday's Children's Theatre Connection. And Theatreworks/USA brought a lively, moving musical version of Black Beauty to the St. Louis Family Theatre Series in Florissant, with lovely images of graceful equine movement.